Thursday, November 28, 2013

Kids without TV

Okay, sort of without TV.  For the last three years, we have had telus internet and tv.  While the quality of service has been good, the rates have constantly climbed upwards.  What's the point of a locked in contract if they can jack the rates when they want?  So when our time is up in January, we are ready to give telus the boot. 

Our kids had gotten used to having tv.  For a long time it wasn't really a problem - even if it was on, most of the time they weren't watching it anyways. But over the last six months they have become a lot more zombie like when watching it.  This concerned both me and my wife. 

The excuse to actually do something about it came a month ago when we moved back to new west. Between visiting relatives, piles of boxes and uncertainty as to where to put the tv, it basically got tucked away for three weeks.  

The fist week was hard for the kids. They were much crankier, quicker to get angry, and bickering with each other far more often. 

Interestingly, they never got upset specifically about the lack of tv. Moods were definitely soured though.  But after a week, things slowly started to mellow. My son had been rapidly improving his reading skills the last six months, and instead he would take a book to his bed and sit there for a while. 

Our daughter started getting more physical with us, wanting to use me as a jungle gym all the time instead of just half the time. We already enjoyed playing board games together, but it started happening much more frequently. We made even more trips to the playground or the swimming pool. 

After three weeks I'd say the dynamics were just as good as they were before the tv disappeared. It was no epiphany or miraculous improvement in how our family live and love each other, but it was good. 

The kids vegged out less, but that also meant the grown ups couldn't veg as much either. Some days were tougher than others, but in the long run it's better for us too. 

Eventually, thought, boxes got unpacked, furniture set up and the tv returned.  We used the opportunity to impose much stricter limits on the amount of tv we watch. Our plan is to dump cable and go to Netflix come January.  We are still keeping the Wii and DVD collection, but at least we will be making our screen time more focused. Hopefully we have a little less zombie and a little more fun. 

Monday, November 25, 2013

Danger at Quayside

My family and I live in a condo in Quayside, so we are quite familiar with the rail yard.  In fact, we are practically right on top of it (the price you pay for an affordable family condo in Metro Vancouver).  The noise bugged us for the first week, but we quickly adapted.  Surprisingly, it didn’t bother our children in the least.  

Of more concern than noise and on a lot of peoples’ minds after Lac-Megantik is trains carrying dangerous goods.  

I can’t remember where I saw it (meeting minutes, a sign somewhere or something of that ilk), but something said to people living in Quayside “the dangerous goods are all heavier than air, so just stay in your home and you will be fine.”   At first I wasn't sure if it was serious or I was being mocked.  It was serious.  

While refined petroleum products may be heavier than air, the pressure wave created when they explode is not and will cause a lot of grief for anyone in its way.  Many of them vapourize readily and those vapours are lighter than air.  Being heavier than air doesn’t help all those people in low-rises.  And even if people could avoid the unpleasantness by staying in their homes, you’re still stuck in your home for an unknown amount of time, an island in a sea of chemicals.  

In response to municipal calls, Transportation Minister Lisa Riatt has issued a protective direction.  All railway companies must now report dangerous goods movements through municipalities every quarter (Class 1 railroads) or year (everyone else).   Apparently this will formalize some things that have been happening on an ad hoc basis already, and will be in place for three years while Transport Canada develops regulations on the issue.  

Municipalities, including New West, have been pushing railroads for information on dangerous goods shipments for some time.  Fire Chief Tim Armstrong’s "primary frustration, he says, is that rail companies are not obliged to provide his department with specific details of the materials hauled by their trains, or provide the times that any hazardous shipments might roll through town, unless he requests the information.”

So as nice as it is, this directive will not provide what Chief Armstrong is requesting.   Historical reports are good for watching trends and developing overall strategies, but don’t help in the day to day operation of a city.  Chief Armstrong is clearly looking for that day to day information, so I asked Councillor Jonathan X. Cote what this means to him.  How would the fire department operate differently if it had the information Chief Armstrong is requesting?  

Chief Armstrong’s response, through Councillor Cote, was that the NWFD has a good working relationship with the railways, Southern Railway (SRY) in particular, the Fire Department is continuing to train on HAZMAT response tailored to the mix of dangerous goods that tend to flow through New West, and that they get good information and quick responses from SRY.   He agreed that the directive doesn’t help much for being proactive, and that New West is ahead of that curve by using its relationships with the railways.  

Looking at the Public Safety section of the city website, I don’t see anything on rail safety.  A general search yields links to general sections and a few hits on some overpasses.  Digging a bit deeper found a report with the October 7th, 2013 Committee of the Whole agenda (starting on page 291) discussing this issue.    

The report is mostly trying to sell council on developing a stronger HAZMAT team within the New West Fire Department.  Currently the NWFD is only trained to identify and secure a HAZMAT issue, and is not trained or equipped to deal with it further.  We have deals with Burnaby and Coquitlam who are more trained and equipped to actually clear a HAZMAT incident.  Additionally, the report touches on preliminary work developing an evacuation plan for the Quayside area via the Fraser River.  Meeting minutes noted that dangerous goods travel a 5 mph or less, and the Federal Government is working on an apparent void in the railways’ emergency response plans.  

That’s all good and well.  There are arguments either way for training up a HAZMAT team in New West, I won’t go into that here.  Having an evacuation plan is prudent.  What concerns me more is this report, and everything else I’ve seen except the 5 mph limit, looks strictly at post-disaster response.  When the HAZMAT team shows up or the evacuation siren sounds, it’s already too late.  

The better question is how do busy railways and dense populations co-exist safely.  Information on dangerous goods is part of that, but what else must be done?  In New West particularly, how do we protect the Quayside development, Downtown, and Sapperton areas from potential disasters?  How would a potential covering of the railway affect this?  

I asked CN, CP and Southern Railways to identify what type of hazard assessments they have done around their rail yards in general, and the New Westminster yard specifically (google oddity: when googling Canadian Pacific Railway or CP rail, does not show up on the first page. is the first link that appears when searching for CN rail).  I've had no response yet, but it's only been a few days.  

I searched the city website for similar and found nothing substantial.  I found a few minutes from the Emergency Preparedness Committee, but nothing of consequence there either.   While it’s clear some issues are being addressed on a piecemeal basis.  Who is taking an overall look at the city to say “what are the potential hazards we face, and how do we prevent them from occurring?”

At this point the questions start getting interesting.  In all the industries I have worked in, a potential hazard that could result in the death of a person is rated as high severity and something must be done to prevent it.  Were we able to absolutely unequivocally mitigate every potential hazard of death or serious injury?  No, but we tried pretty damn hard to get there.  

Can you take that approach at a municipal level?  We certainly are not at the moment.  If we were, motor vehicle accidents, falls, and suicides should be getting a lot more investigation.  In fairness these issues aren’t emergencies in the same way things like a railway accident or a flood are.  They require different tools and techniques to manage, and one can’t be focused on to neglect the other.  

(google found  a few things, including contact details for the Suicide Prevention and Follow-up Program – you would think at least that would come up on a city site search)

I submitted an application to serve on the Emergency Preparedness Committee.  If I get the chance I will use the opportunity to push the city for more proactive analysis and mitigation of hazards.  We will see if anything comes of that, or my request for the hazard assessments from the railways.  

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

According to the October 7th Committee of the Whole meeting, a raft of reports, and just plain common sense, tolls on the Port Mann Bridge have led to a significant increase in traffic on the Pattullo.
Much hand wringing ensued about what to do about it.  While there were a few suggestions that could be implemented by the city (banning trucks on Royal Avenue), most involved getting other people to do stuff (generally toll the Pattullo).

I’m in favour of doing things yourself rather than trying to pass the buck whenever possible.  Electronic tolling gives us the ability to take control of this issue at a municipal level.  Legal authority may or may not, I haven’t delved into that pit yet, but technically there is nothing stopping us from tolling commuters or truckers through New West .

Tolls can be done a few different ways.  The traditional Canadian way is to toll a specific asset.  You pay a toll to cross the Port Mann or Golden Ears bridge, to ride a ferry, and formerly to drive the Coquihalla.  The equivalent to doing that here would be to toll that Pattullo Bridge, which is what some people are calling for.

Another way is a congestion charge, basically charging vehicles to enter a specific zone in the city.  London is probably most famous for this, but Milan also does it, Singapore tested it, and a number of smaller European cities have implemented it. 

Both of these options have problems for us.  Before we get to those problems though, we need to define what is our goal.  If we don’t define that well, we may end up implementing solutions that only partially or weakly get us what we want, and may have side effects that are more problematic that the problem was before. 

Based on council discussions, news articles, and general bitching and whining, there is one thing everyone says they want.   

Reduce traffic volumes.  Remember the glorious days when the Pattullo was shut down for three weeks after the fire?  We want our car-free utopia back. 

That’s the quick and easy answer.  But the real answer is more subtle.  What traffic do we want to reduce?  Through traffic commuting to Burnaby or Vancouver?  Heck yes, slam that gate shut.  Truck traffic on the way to various ports?  Don’t need it.  Truck traffic to heavy industry or warehouses in New West?  Ummm….that might have some consequences.  Commuters going to or from New West?  Well, we’d like to get them on transit but….  People coming in to utilize New West businesses or services?  Crap - we’re only five questions in and this is already getting hard. 

What we probably want to do is some combination of choking off through-town commuters, minimizing through truck traffic, directing in-town truck traffic in a way that minimizes its impact on everyone else, and allowing people and business to get in and out of New West easily.

The problem with tolls is they are a sledgehammer.  Yes, you can tweak things based on time of day, vehicle size, vehicle pollution, HOVs, but generally speaking tolling comes down to cross this line and you have to pay. That has the general result of making fewer vehicles cross the line.  Instead the go around it (as the Port Mann bridge toll has shown us) or up to the edge of it. 

Sometimes that’s good.  In the case of congestion charges, your end goal is fewer vehicles on the road.  The toll-hammer works well for that – make it more expensive and fewer cars will come. 
In our case, we want to do something more subtle.  We want to direct some traffic away, while at the same time keeping it as easy or easier for other types of traffic to get in and out of town.  The miracle of electronic tolling offers us a potential solution. 

The main problem people seem to have is with the traffic that uses New West as a highway – vehicles that drive through our city, congest and wear out our roads, and pollute our air while not paying to support our infrastructure.  We don’t want to discourage those people coming to or from town, but if we can nudge them onto transit it would be a bonus. 

A bridge toll or congestion charge would hit everyone.  Sure, we’d discourage commuters, but we’d also hit on people living here and coming here for business.  So let’s try and tweak the system a little bit.

Let’s set up a toll system like you would for a congestion charge.  Track every time a vehicle enters and exits the city zone.  Only rather than charging every vehicle that enters the city, just charge the ones that come and go.  Pick a time, say an hour.  Any vehicle that enters town and leaves within one hour is an evil commuter whom we hate and gets charged with the toll.  Any vehicle that stays at least an hour is a friendly patron and supporter off all things New Westminster, so they don’t get charged. 

While it’s not perfect, and would likely miss some of the through traffic and hit some of the come to town traffic we want, in general it should toll those vehicles using New West as a thoroughfare while not hitting those coming to town.  It would be far more selective than a simple bridge toll or congestion charge and thus should manage traffic closer to how we want it instead of just slamming everyone.

It will discourage people coming to New West on short trips for business
Yes this will discourage short trips for business.  To an extent, it will support other goals by pushing some of those people onto transit rather than taking their car.  You could also mitigate this to an extent by making a “from whence ye came” exemption – if a vehicle exits the city by the same road it entered on it does not get tolled. 

Congestion from intentional delays
Make the time too short, and people will game the system by entering town, parking on the side of the road somewhere (maybe even *gasp* idling) until their time is up, then leaving.  This would also aggravate the parking situation.  Solution?  Extend the time you need to stay before the toll is removed.  However, there’s only so far you can go with this before it becomes a defacto congestion charge.  I’m willing to trust engineers and their traffic models to pick an ideal time. 

I’m just a simple engineer, so I’m sure this is an idea that has been thought of in traffic circles before.  My Google searching wasn’t able to come up with anything, but I may not know the right words to search for.  I would love to see if any studies, modelling or tests have been done for a system along these lines.  Even more so, I would love to see the city take control of traffic on its roads.  I believe the technology is there to do it. 

Friday, November 15, 2013

New Westminster Blog Survey

I did a quick poke around for New Westminster related blogs.  Most of these I got off the list at, the rest from google and my own archives.  While many New West related blog have started, not many appear to stick it through (I suppose I'm guilty on that count too).

Tenth to the Fraser - The definitive New Westminster blog.  Lots of contributers, great articles and generally very current.  For some reason though it's gone very quiet since this summer, with a couple of article in July and then nothing until late October.  Hope they get back their mojo, it's a great resource.  

May Queens and Movie Scenes:  "Life and Politics in the Royal City."  Ran for a few months in early 2012, then dead.  

Tourism New Westminster: The official blog of Tourism New West.  Updated rarely and randomly, last post in August 2013.  

EXPRESS - Voice New Westminister:  The Voice New West municipal slate/party blog.  Looks like it was busy through the election in 2012, and then went away. blogs:  Postmedia network's collection of blogs from the New West newspaper staff.  For some reason the links at the site don't work for me.  Here is Only in New West, from reporter Theresa McManus.  Updated regularly.  

New West in my Backyard (formerly Green New West):  New West issues with more of an environmental take.  Updated regularly, and a good read.  

Car(e)free NW: "Family life sans automobile in New Westminster BC"  Was going regularly until the summer of 2013, then stopped.  

Glenbrook North Zero Waste:  Active 2010-2012.

Down by the River:  Seems to post semi-annually, and mostly related to NewWest DocFest

In New West with Kids:  Very sparsely updated - I really wish this blogger did more.  The last post was in September and was a great tip on Port Royal beach.  

Liquid Thoughts:  Blog for Matthew Liard, who is quite active in the New West municipal political scene.  His blog is dead since 2012, but his twitter is quite active still.  Make that very active - 11 tweets in the last hour.  

General note to bloggers:  Put dates, including years on your posts.  It's maddening to have no idea what year your post was made in.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I understand why it happens, but it still weirds me out watching logs float up the Fraser River.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Back in New West!

Not long after this blog went dead, we moved to a place in East Vancouver, where we have been for the past three years.  

The wheels turn, though, and we have just moved into our new place at Quayide!  And we're bringing back an extra kid with us.  So far we are learning to live with the trains, loving the boardwalk and really liking what's been done with New Westminster Station.