Thursday, December 1, 2016

Heritage. A word in seach of a meaning.

A while back, Mike Folka asked some questions on his blog and twitter account attempting to get a discussion going around heritage in our community.  I’d been long wanting to write something on heritage and preservation, but every time I tried I kept running into mental blocks – I felt like I wasn’t even sure of what was being discussed, let alone what I could contribute to it.  All I had were questions, and as more and more issues came up, I just had more and more questions.  

So I took Mike’s call to arms as an opportunity to collect my questions into one place.  I sent them to him, but I have no idea what evil intentions he has.  With the Queens Park Heritage Area popping up again recently, I thought I’d expand on them a bit and put them up here to hear what others have to say.   

1.     When we as a community or a government or an individual say we want to ‘preserve heritage and/or character,’ what exactly does that mean? What specifically are we trying to preserve? For whom are we preserving it?  And to what end? Frankly, unless this is answered clearly, any discussion of heritage is just hoodoo-voodoo.  

This is the main issue I have with the whole heritage discussion in New West.  To me it feels like whenever someone uses the term ‘preserve our heritage,’ it’s just a euphemism for “they shouldn’t be able to tear down their house because I like it.”  

2.     Heritage, much like community, is about people.  While artifacts, including houses, can provide valuable touchstones and longevity that people do not have, preserving heritage should be about people. 
On that note, the May Queen dance issue stood out to me as a glaring example of people’s interest in preserving heritage artifacts, but not people and institutions.  

3.     Speaking of people, they do bad things at times.  How do those bad things fit into preservation, alongside atonement and reconciliation? 

We’ve had our share of bad stuff right here in New West, from the treatment of first nations, a pretty nasty prison and I’d imagine many more things I’ve never heard of.  How do we maintain heritage while recognizing what happened?

Consider for example how Germany has banned the Nazi flag, and some places in the US are now banning the Confederate flag.  Obviously we don’t want to glorify the evils of the past, but neither do I think it’s right just to bury or hide it, where it can be too easily forgotten.  And how do we manage this with constantly changing moral norms?  What are we celebrating and preserving today that will have our descendants calling us savage monsters?  

4.     Heritage neighbourhoods.  Again, this is focused on artifacts, or ‘character’, and not people.  But by restricting the land uses you are limiting the kinds of people who would choose to live there.  How do we reconcile this with trying to promote diversity in our communities?  

5.     Similarly, how do you reconcile preserving the heritage character of a neighbourhood with allowing people to define their community’s character?  A community’s character is a reflection of the people within it.  To what extent are we saying ‘you can come to this neighbourhood, but you can’t alter it,’ both explicitly (you can’t change your house) and implicitly (you’re not welcome here if you don’t play along)? 

This is the most insidious part of neighbourhood covenants to me.  It’s one thing to say you are just limiting architectural or aesthetic concerns over homes and land uses, but this can easily turn into a tool for trying to keep ‘certain’ people out of an area.  This isn’t just a covenant issue – there are a lot of homeowners associations and stratas that give me the creeps because of this.  

6.     Since housing seems to get the most of the focus, some questions specifically related to that:
a.     Balancing private property rights. I’m aware that we don’t give property owners carte blanche permission to develop their land, but at what point do restrictions on property development move from reasonable to not? How does this fit into the context of all the other restrictions owners face on using their property?
b.     Density - by designating entire neighbourhoods as ‘heritage’ how much are you limiting the amount of density that can be added there? How does that fit in with the OCP and regional goals?
c.      How are we defining neighbourhood character?  There is talk about allowing ‘gentle’ infill in areas like Queens Park.  What is gentle?  What is rough? How are we deciding what is allowable and fits in with the heritage character of the area, and what is ‘out of character’? Who is deciding it? What gives them the knowledge, and frankly the right, to pass judgement on it?
d.     How do you balance preserving old housing with environmental goals?
                                                      i.          Land use - maintaining large areas for evil Single Family Homes.  I’d include here transit as well, this makes it more costly to provide frequent, reliably service and encourages car dependency.  
                                                    ii.          Energy use - old homes are generally much less energy efficient than newer ones
                                                   iii.          Safety - Older buildings have nowhere near the seismic, fire and general safety features modern buildings do.  Is it worth preserving a building that is not sufficiently safe?  
                                                   iv.          Retrofitting can alleviate some of these issues, but how much can be changed and the building still considered heritage?  
e.     Along those lines, does building a new home in a ‘heritage’ style meet the intent? Must a house be old wood and bricks to be considered heritage? 
If we razed Queens Park and built all new homes to modern standards, but architecturally equivalent to the old ones, would it still be the same? If we build a new house out of recycled material from torn down old houses, is it ‘heritage’?
f.       How do we balance preserving stock while allowing redevelopment and densification?  This is a much more long term concern, but as more and more homes and neighbourhoods become restricted, development is forced onto a smaller available land base.  How does this impact affordability, infrastructure requirements, city services?  
g.     Why are new ‘monster homes’ evil, but old ‘monster homes’ good? I see many heritage houses that dwarf the McMansions so many decry.  Yes, some of these old houses have been partitioned into multiple units, but many of the new large homes are also used for multiple generations or more than one family.  
7.     Why are First Nations rarely mentioned in terms of heritage preservation? They get lip service at times, but as soon their concerns stand in the way of building a high school, all bets are off.  And the people/institutions vs. artifacts questions apply doubly here.  
8.     Commercial/Industrial heritage.  Again, there’s interest in preserving a few buildings, but not preservation of the businesses, industries, associations and services that built our city.  FRDC is doing some good stuff here, but their focus is somewhat narrow.  
And back to neighbourhood agreements, how do we incorporate multi-modal development in character controlled area?
9.     Today’s society is tomorrow’s heritage.  If we are concerned with protecting heritage, how are we identifying what is happening now that should be preserved in the future? And how should we preserve it? 

Sorry I don’t have something more positive to contribute.  I think that stems from the fact that frankly, I don’t have a clear sense of what it is we as a city/community are trying to accomplish through ‘heritage preservation,’  besides getting other people to stop tearing down houses they like.  If I had a better sense of that, perhaps I could offer something more constructive.  

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Transit with a Growing Family

We are blessed to live in a city and region that has good transit service available.  However, as I’ve levelled up in adulting, going from Single to Married to having now Three Children, how I use and what I value in transit has changed with me.  Taking kids on transit brings a whole new set of issues that were not a concern before I had kids, and unfortunately the sum of those issues ultimately drove me away from using transit as a primary transportation method. 

As a single and newly married bloke, I was carless.  Over the last eight years, we’ve gone from zero to three kids and back and forth between zero and one cars (about four years each).  During my seven months in hospital, my wife was a single mom with three kids (including a one-year-old) and no car.  We chose where we lived in Vancouver and New West in large part due to access to transit and to be within walking distance of many services we use.  So we’re not a family that looks at transit and says “no way!”  We’re a family that has tried it for years, and eventually said “fuck it.”

While there are many things that have gone into our decisions on transportation, for sake of discussion I’ll break them into cost, convenience, and ‘other stuff.’ 


While transit in Metro Vancouver is very economical as a single adult, it gets relatively less so as your family gets larger.  Kids under 5 are free.  That’s fine, but as soon as you want to take your kids to school on transit you need to pay up.  They do get a reduced fare, and can travel all three zones at that price, but it’s not an insignificant expense, particularly as you have more children. 

For example, the cost for transit passes for our family would be $230, soon to be $280.  That includes the freebie three zone pass my wife gets.  Additionally, if we’re primarily using transit and going carless, there are other costs for cabs, car rentals/car shares and other such, for us around $125-$150 per month.  Overall transportation costs: $350-$400 per month. 

Running a car full time costs us $350 a month, all in.  That covers most of our transportation needs – commuting three days a week, activities, occasional road trips to the interior and so on.  We do use transit for some things, which is maybe another $50 per month in tickets.  So total transportation costs of ~$400 per month.  So by going primarily transit, it doesn’t save us much if any money.  It’d be even worse if we had to pay for my wife’s pass.

Convenience - Can I Get There?

While transit service overall is good in Metro Vancouver, depending on where specifically you want to go it can range anywhere from terrific to terrible.  Downtown New West to Downtown Vancouver?  Terrific!  Fleetwood to Poco?  Terrible. 

Then there’s going somewhere not within the transit service area.  If you’re hitting one of the main lines in the Fraser Valley, transferring over to FVRT can sometimes work.  But anywhere else it becomes highly impractical.  Going to Victoria?  That can work if you’re heading to Sidney or central Victoria.  The kids love riding on the double deckers.  Nanaimo or the Sunshine Coast?  It’s fine until you get off the ferry on the other side.  That can work great for adults.  But two adults and three kids typically means we need two cars to meet us, and we’re dragging three carseats along the whole way.

If I want to visit friends in Mission, it’s over two hours on four busses.  And that’s only where the busses go, while they run.  Want to explore some of our incredible provincial parks?  The North Shore can be done, but that’s about it.  Car rentals/shares offer alternatives here, but multi-hour trips start driving up that side of the cost equation pretty quickly. 

Convenience - Timing/Flexibility

Timing can be an issue for short trips and long.  Suppose we wanted to hit up Mongo Bongo in Uptown for dinner.  By car it’s a 10 minute drive each way, free parking, we can enjoy dinner at our own pace and have a nice time. 

Transit:  25 minutes each way (remember, there’s kids involved) and $6.25 to get there.  Once we’re there, we need to decide.  Do we press to finish dinner quickly, run outside to catch the bus downtown just before our transfers expire (hope it’s on time!).  Or do we eat dinner at a relaxed pace and spend another $6.25 to go home? Tight connections are far more manageable as an adult than with multiple kids.  

Multiple stops on one trip.  This is a huge issue for us, and I believe is a big part of what pushes people to drive their kids to school, especially in the suburbs. It’s not the getting the kids to school that’s the issue, it’s the where the parents are going next that makes the decision. 

When we moved to Quayside, our kids went to John Robson.  I could walk them there in 15-20 minutes, back to the skytrain in 5-10, and take the train and a bus to work in another 25.  A 45-55 minute commute.  Not my ideal, but workable. 

Then things changed.  First our school moved to the other end of downtown.  Then Translink extended my bus route 10-15 minutes each way.  Now a 45-55 minute commute became nearly an hour and a half.  I could reasonably walk or bus my kids to school.  I could reasonably transit to work.  But when trying to combine the trips it became unworkable. 

After school has the flip side of this – picking up the kids is fine, but trying to combine that with after school activities or appointments becomes a logistics planning exercise. 

Other Stuff - Accessibility

If you’re taking a bus or train during a busy period, good luck trying to keep your kids contained.  Getting a few seats together, for at least the littlest ones?  Maybe if someone is kind enough to offer up a spot for you.  But for seven months my wife would be taking the train downtown during rush hour and have to pack our one year old (at the time) in her arms. 

Accessibility can be an issue in certain areas.  While we lived in Uptown, we would regularly take the 155/156 buses.  At the time we had a newborn and a two-year-old and often used a stroller.  Given the ridership of those routes, the accessible seats were frequently taken up by older people with walkers, wheelchairs or scooters.  I don’t begrudge them those spots at all, but when we’re regularly getting passed by because we can’t fit on the bus with our kids, transit becomes less attractive. 

One great thing about transit in Metro Vancouver is that essentially all the busses are low floor.  High floor buses (257, I’m looking at you) were a pain to deal with strollers (and wheelchairs and other mobility aids), so props to Translink for getting their whole fleet low floor.  That said – Community Shuttles and strollers?  Don’t even bother. 

Other Stuff - Hassle

Stuff.  Packing 2 adults and 3 kids onto a crowded bus is one thing.  Trying to do it with multiple suitcases when you’re going to the airport, or bringing everyone’s car seats for when you get to Nanaimo, or a even just a couple of sports bags and the process becomes exponentially more complicated.  This is one area where the kids getting older has helped somewhat, but has also lead to an increase of lost items. 

People.  Taking kids on transit introduced us to some of the best and worst in people.  We have had countless experiences of our kids engaging with fellow riders, making friends, receiving gifts (careful with this – it can be really sweet or really creepy depending on how it’s done) and just incredible kindness from total strangers.

Conversely, we had people who think your kid singing or giggling is an intrusion on their silent morning commute.  People who are outraged a two year old is standing on a seat to look out a window.  And God forbid your child has a meltdown – you will meet several professional parents who know exactly what you need to do (and a blessed few who help settle them down or otherwise support you). 

Weather. A climate controlled car is just a lot more comfortable than a crowded bus in summer, or an exposed transit stop in winter, and kids tend to be a lot moodier about it than adults.  Of course proper clothing and preparation can make it more bearable, but it’s hard to compete with a car for comfort. 

Mental Space:  Here is another area where having kids completely reversed transit for me.  With no kids, I often enjoyed time on transit.  I could get comfy on a seat, drift off in my thoughts or enjoy some music or a podcast.  Taking transit was far less mentally draining than driving. 

Enter children.  Mental space on transit is now mostly consumed with managing said children.  And the space they consume grows exponentially with their number.  There are good days and bad, but with kids a long transit ride isn’t the pleasant, relaxing experience it was before. 

Other options

Car sharing/car rentals.  We do utilize this for some things.  I’ve been a Car2Go member for many years.  Combined with transit, it’s a dandy way of getting around Vancouver.  Until recently, it was just a 2-seater though.  Now between it and Evo there are five-seat one-way options available.  Haven’t had the chance to try out the Car2Go one yet, but I’m keen to. 

Rental cars were a regular supplement to our transit years, and worked pretty well.  That said, I find this option worked best for longer timeframes.  When we were carless, we would sometimes rent a car for trips to the Kootenays, and it was brilliant.  Getting one for a few hour picnic at Rolley Lake was less appealing.   

Human Powered Wheels.  We do make use of bikes, skateboards, scooters and a big red wagon.  For the older kids, a combined bike to school/work could potentially work well on some days, but it’s something we still need to try.  But generally these options tend to replace walking trips as opposed to driving trips. 

What can be done?

None of the issues I raised are deal breakers on their own.  It’s the combination of effects that pushes us away from transit.  If I’m going to get out of my car, I need something better in at least one of these areas.  Why would I pay more for a longer, less convenient, more hassle filled trip? 

The stronger the benefit transit offers in any area, the more likely I am to take it.  Going downtown?  Skytrain is cheaper, faster, and at least as convenient.  It usually wins.  Metrotown – driving’s cheaper, they take the same time, and to me the hassle of parking at Metrotown is worse than the hassle of bringing my kids on the train.  Toss up.  Taking my kids for dinner Uptown?  Driving is cheaper, faster, and more convenient. 

Some things would be improved, through general service improvements.  More buses overall means less crowding and easier connections. 

I don’t mind paying for my kids transit fares in theory, but as the kids and costs accumulate it makes the driving option relatively more appealing, as those costs don’t increase in the same way.  Even small things, like the old Family Pass, would go a long way.  We go to church in downtown Vancouver so this made the skytrain ideal for us. 

Increasing the cost of driving through things like mobility pricing will push the cost equation more in transit’s favour.  That said, it would take a very major increase to get us to shift to principally taking transit just on the cost. 

Similarly, finding a way to get passes into families’ hands would go a long way.  The U-pass program has shown if you give people passes they will use them.  Currently, it’s a vicious cycle.  If we had passes, we would use transit much more often.  But given the issues above, I can’t justify getting passes.  So if we do want to use transit, we need to buy tickets, which are even more punitive farewise. 

During the transit plebsicte, I half-jokingly suggested enacting a major vehicle levy (on the order of several hundred dollars), but including an annual transit pass with this.  I’d still pay to register my car even with such a large fee.  But I’d at least have a pass then, which would get me on transit far more often.   

EngineerScotty had some interesting things to say on this at HumanTransit, particularly on how transit oriented neighbourhoods are often not family friendly and vice versa. 

But overall, there’s no magic bullet.  It’s all the small things that add up together that determines how we travel.  Overall, I think our region is moving in the right direction on this.  Hopefully transit will become more and more attractive as things take hold.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Trying Not to go Broke While Feeding a Family of Five

A friend recently posted about her family’s grocery expenses on Facebook, and it generated quite a discussion.  I originally typed up a massive reply talking about all the different things we do (and some we don’t) to try and manage the grocery bill for our family of five, but it didn’t feel appropriate there. So in the interest of trying to get blogging again and maybe, just maybe, helping someone along the way, I’m putting it up here. 

It's easy to spend a lot on groceries. We spend about $800-900 per month on food, not counting restaurant meals. Compared to others in the mentioned discussion, generally families of 4-5, we were well on the lower end, but certainly not the lowest.  We have figured a few things out on our own, but we owe a great deal of knowledge to the part-time nanny we had last year.  She had worked as a church and camp chef for a long time, and I’m still amazed at how far she was able to make grocery money go.  So much of the credit for this goes to her.  I’ll start with some general thoughts, and then get into some specific things we do for different kinds of food. 

I’ll start by saying we are big store shoppers.  While we do regularly hit the farmers’ market, and occasionally grab organic items instead of non-, most of our shopping is done from regular bins and aisle of Safeway, Save-on, and the like.  In general, I find Superstore, Costco, and yes even Walmart, have excellent prices on dry, canned and some frozen goods, but don’t offer any deals on fresh. Some local markets, like Denny’s, have excellent prices on fresh produce and can have some smoking deals on dry goods too, particularly ethnic items.  This pricing can come at the expense of appearance, but I don’t generally need my peppers to be photogenic.  Other markets have big store like pricing, so do your diligence.  Tenth to the Fraser has a good article on produce markets in New West.  Safeway and Save-on don’t offer anything special, but I consider them the baseline. In my experience, I’ve found Save-on to have slightly better regular pricing, but Safeway tends to have much better sales. 

One of the commenters in the Facebook discussion mentioned a common complaint I hear, that premade food is so much cheaper than healthy food. I don’t buy into that.  While it can take some planning, taking advantage of sales, and freezer space, there are almost always healthier, less costly options than pre-made.  One example was given of chicken nuggets being cheaper than fresh chicken breast.  Yes, if you want the best cut, fresh off the bird, you can often find nuggets cheaper than that.  But if you go for thighs or whole birds on sale, it’s often cheaper.  Heck, our Safeway regularly has 10 lb boxes of frozen breasts for only $25.  Even on sale I don’t see nuggets for $2.50 a pound.  Beans, noodles, rice, and other things of this ilk offer cheap, filling, and more nutritious alternatives to meals in a can or a box. 

The biggest thing I learned from our nanny was to keep our kitchen, and in particular our freezer, well stocked.  Firstly, it lets us get the most out of sales. But more significantly, by having a good mix of things at home, we minimize the six pm "we have nothing to eat" panic, running out to get "one or two things." Even if it's as simple as flour, eggs and milk (crepes or fresh bread) or some boullion and frozen veggies (soup!) we've really seen the benefit of ensuring staples are always on hand. It’s to the point now where a half full pantry or deep freeze drives me crazy.  It also means when you're looking at that recipe you really want to make, but are missing one-two ingredients, you'll often have decent substitutes available.  

We try stick to what's in season and use a small market instead of a big store.  As mentioned they often have produce that doesn't look quite as nice as Safeway but is just as good. If we want off season produce (at some point in winter I will need a strawberry smoothie) we watch for sales in the frozen aisle. This is more for summer produce in winter; fall and winter produce doesn’t seem as volatile to me. 

That said, this is the area I don’t mind spending some more money if the food is getting eaten. Yes, raspberries aren’t cheap come October.  But the kids eat them like candy.  If I’m spending a bit more to have them eating raspberries instead of Goldfish, I can live with that. 

If you eat meat, I think this is the area that offers the most potential savings.  First – eat less of it.  As a teenager I was practically a carnivore, but have settled down since then. We typically have meat as part of 3-5 dinners a week, and it’s usually only a small part of the meal. Depending on what you use for proteins, going fully vegetarian can save you money.  We’re not that hard core, so have found some other ways to keep our meat bill down.

The second biggest thing I learned from our nanny was to buy off-cuts and clearance meats whenever we find something potentially usable, and throw them in the freezer. Similarly, buy bulk packs, split them and freeze them. Fresh lean ground beef is usually $6-7/lb here, bulk packs regularly go on sale for $2.50/lb.  If you know your way around a knife, buying whole chickens can get you several meals out of one bird.   

Dairy's the hardest area for me to find any savings. I watch for deals on cheese, and a few kinds can be frozen reasonably well, but milk, butter and eggs? I got nothing. And even if we do find a sale and load up, we go through it so quickly it doesn’t last long anyways.  I’d love to hear if you have any suggestions here. 

For bread we do a few things.  If we’re buying, we generally just get the store brand regular bread.  If there’s a really good sale on store or name brand bread I’ll try and load up the freezer.  Same for other breads – English muffins, bagels, tortillas - I get lots when there’s a sale, but like dairy we tend to go through them so quickly it doesn’t last long.  For other specialty breads (herbed breads, banana loaf, etc), I’ve been pulling out the bread maker a lot more lately.  One think I keep forgetting to try is the discount store McGavin’s Bread Basket on 12th.

Dry and Frozen Goods
I try and get these from the big box stores whenever possible. Their prices, especially their store brand items, tend to be unbeatable.  Of course individual items are all different, but watch for sales and you can easily get things for 1/3rd the price of Safeway or Save-on. I find this drives me the craziest with things like crackers and snacky-type foods.  When I get them from the big box stores I don’t mind quite as much when the kids devour two boxes in five seconds.

This is the area where you can often find the most straight up volume of food for your dollar.  Again, things like dried beans, lentils, and rice are very cheap and provide a good base for the rest of your meal.  For example, the other day I made a big pot of chili.  Eating just the chili, it would have lasted two dinners and maybe a couple of bowls for lunch.  But boil up a dollar's worth of rice to set it on and we had dinner for a week.  

Those are the main things we do to keep the grocery bill from being, well not too painful at least. 
There are lots of ways we could do better still. While we used to meal plan regularly, we don’t much these days, and it can provide significant benefits, ensuring you’re only buying what you need and making the most of it. We could make better use of our 'waste' food to make stocks and things like that. We don't use the produce markets or discount bread stores as much as we could. We don’t do any sort of canning or other preservation.  While we'd love to spend less, overall we feel our grocery bill isn't completely insane for the amount of energy we invest in reducing it. And I feel we eat well, both in terms of quantity and quality. 

That said I remember how much food I ate as a teenager, and I am afraid of what’s coming.  Very afraid.