Featured entry

Quick post to mark the occasion of the publication of my first column for the Vancouver edition of the daily Metro News newspaper yesterday. I will be contributing an article for the weekly column on the topic of transit, walking and cycling; it appears on Tuesdays. I’m very excited at getting to share my experiences […]

My first column contribution for Metro News Vancouver

Afterwords #7: Technologies adding options for getting around

Afterwords consists of footnotes, references and outtakes from my column contributions published in Metro News Vancouver. Read my February 24, 2015 column Transit innovations that matter allow us to live without cars, or with them, but in a new way over at Metro News Vancouver.

This week’s columns is one of my favourite topics to write about. Our technological capabilities are evolving, but so too are our understanding how our needs for movement fit into the landscape of our lives — especially as we grapple with the value of the time we want to have to live our lives. Infrastructure and policy are in some cases catching up, as we wrestle out the implications of this on systems and institutions in place; but they also put the framework in place for new things to emerge.

And OK, maybe I wanted an excuse to write about the Copenhagen Wheel from superpedestrian. Their product update video to their Kickstarter funders from this past November showcases the technical advancements involved in bringing the wheel to market. If I were anywhere near Cambridge I’d be in for a demo in a heartbeat.

I was also inspired this week by the story in the Toronto Star of this car-free family in Brampton, Ontario. The statement of how the parents thought about the mother’s situation before they went car-free is striking:

They are also keenly aware they have the luxury of choice when it comes to car ownership.

Their journey began when Emily was assigned the night shift at her old job with Air Canada.

“I wasn’t getting sleep. I wasn’t able to follow what the kids were doing at school. I had no clue what was going on, whether I was coming or going.

“We sat down and did the math and basically worked out (that) what I was paying in daycare and for my car (meant) I was working so I could have a car so I could be very tired,” she said.

Finally, there were a lot of things that I consider “technology” that were left on the cutting room floor of this article – elevators, pedometers and rolling luggage; cargo bikes (which the Bruntletts wrote about spectacularly at Grist this week); that app that makes running into a Zombie game; pay as you drive insurance.

While the newest and brightest “how” is exciting, I try to keep the “why” close in mind as well — safer streets, preserved natural habitats through compact regions, decreased ecological footprint (materials and carbon, though probably offset a bit by the revolving smartphones). healthier residents, more time and money, more financial security (and in many cases, more jobs).

Afterwords #6: Double Standards in Transportation Discussions

Afterwords consists of footnotes, references and outtakes from my column contributions published in Metro News Vancouver. Read my February 17, 2015 column How the free crossing at Port Mann Bridge is costing all of us over at Metro News Vancouver.

First things first — I’m not sure what’s going on with that headline. Update: It took me a very, very long moment but it makes sense to me now and I’m laughing a little at how my 6am brain flipped out. Well played, Metro editors. Well played.

The topic of double standards for different transportation modes is a pretty old one. Among other things, it’s encapsulated neatly in this comic by cartoonist Andy Singer and Randy Ghent that has made the rounds several times on social media:

A webcomic with two panels. Top panel shows congestion on a highway and is captioned 'Public investment'. Bottom panel shows a light rail vehicle and is captioned 'Wasteful subsidy'.

I’m sad to say I didn’t have the energy to be more than mildly outraged when I read about the $90 million shortfall from the Port Mann over the next 3 years at this CBC article from last week. We’re getting a plebiscite on the $7.5 billion for spending on this package from our Mayor’s Council of 22 regional mayors. However, there was almost nothing for the $3.3 billion spent on the Port Mann bridge, which is revealing itself to be significantly overbuilt and which tossed a number of wrenches in our long-term regional transportation plan.

Meanwhile, as others have pointed out, there were more people consulted for the $6 million stretch of Point Grey Road supporting safe cycling and walking, than there were for the Massey Tunnel bridge replacement, which also happens to be included in the Congestion Improvement sales tax package.

Eye for an eye, and the whole region’s stuck in traffic (or in my case, shortcutting too fast through my neighbourhood and making my bike ride unsafe). As I’ve said on Twitter — TransLink can’t feel pain or be punished. We can lobby and work to make them change what they do that we don’t like, like executive compensation, and there are decent arguments to be made about that.

But we cannot afford the time spent on making the stars align again. This is where the fact of the sheer complexity of the governance for transit really poses a challenge. I think a lot of people cynically saying, “Oh, they’ll find a way to make those transit projects go forward, my vote doesn’t really matter because they’ll just take it out of property tax,” look at how road projects happen and think they will be equally as easy to get agreement on — when the reality is the complete opposite.

Furthermore, for all the bitterness about the regressiveness of the sale tax, I think there’s a fair case to be made that property tax is even more so. After all, as this article from October 2014 touches on, people in places like Vancouver have the burden of service delivery spread over a larger population and also has a larger base of inherited assets, so some cities get more service bang for their buck. The opposite is true in Surrey, where a lot of the basics are still being built out. The varying implications of this on transit spending are yet unexplored.

Yes, I skipped over Afterwords #5. I have things to say about transit police and safety as well, I promise.

Afterwords #4: Improving walkability for a healthier region

Afterwords consists of footnotes, references and outtakes from my column contributions published in Metro News Vancouver. Read my February 3, 2015 column Congestion Improvement Sales Tax a chance to rediscover walking over at Metro News Vancouver.

I was excited to hear the news when Dr. Patricia Daly announced support for a yes vote in the transit referendum on health grounds. It’s a topic I have grown to feel very strongly about, from a multitude of angles.

Perhaps the biggest factor in this is that in March 2014, I started working at bcdiabetes.ca and going on daily walks as part of the Walk the Walk program about three to four times a week with the diabetes nurse. She invites her patients on these walks and will often talk to them about how they are managing. These walks have exposed me to so many parts of the experience of having diabetes that I had never known or thought about, not having it myself or living with someone who does. I didn’t know, for example, how common it is for people with diabetes to also suffer from depression, or how much stigma people with it face.

And I know from my own experience of having been sedentary just how subjective the perception of obstacles to being active can be. The idea that everyone tells the same story about what it means to prioritize then take action to get and stay healthy strikes me as profoundly unhelpful. I’m really glad our health authorities are being thoughtful on this front.

Some links to references:

Afterwords #3: Stepping up with some referendum talk

Afterwords consists of footnotes, references and outtakes from my column contributions published in Metro News Vancouver. Read my January 27, 2015 column Why You Should Vote Yes on the Congestion Improvement Tax over at Metro News Vancouver.

Unlike the previous two columns, I wrote this one in relative isolation. It shows in two ways — firstly, in that I truly believe every last word of it and it represents my experience having grown up and made my life in Vancouver; and secondly, in that I’m genuinely uncertain and curious as to whether it speaks to others’ reasons for supporting or not supporting the coming plebiscite known as the transit referendum on the congestion improvement sales tax. I’ve long accepted that my column won’t see me making exhaustively thorough arguments I’m used to reading in academic or professional settings (or even some slick websites). Instead, it’s really all about points of light for me, and hoping I’m reflecting what some folks are thinking even as I’m putting what I think on the table.

That being said, I’m likely to revise it considerably for the version that I’ll eventually put on Medium, as I’ve received some really valuable and thoughtful feedback since submitting it for the Metro deadline — that is, if the rest of life doesn’t completely sideswipe me for the week.

This blog post is much more in keeping with my original intent for my column, which was to have my notes immediately available as further reading. But I’m also going to use this as a placeholder where I’ll add my comments on the column as the week goes on.

Afterwords #2: More on Car-free Families

Afterwords consists of footnotes, references and outtakes from columns published in Metro News Vancouver. I’m considering incorporating these notes as best I can into the version of each column that I post to Medium. Speaking of which — if you enjoyed this piece, please consider giving it a recommendation on Medium.

This piece was a ton of fun to write. This was mostly because I started with some preconceived notions, took the topic to Facebook, got a ton of fascinating responses and was able to speak more in-depth to three families about their experiences to round out my thinking.

I’ve posted the piece to Medium for handy sharing, annotating and commenting, and am toying with the idea of going this route for all my future columns. Here are the additional links, if you’re curious:

  • Story on the U-Pass in the Georgia Straight from 2009, featuring the thesis work of Elizabeth Caitlin Cooper. I started at SFU in the fall of 2002, about a year before the U-Pass was introduced, so it’s interesting to me to see track and ponder at the effect this policy has had on my cohort.
  • Regarding children as a determinant of car ownership — it’s often included in models looking at car ownership (see this dissertation based on data from the Netherlands, which even broke it down by kids’ ages). It’s often noted for the kind of city that Vancouver’s been and aiming to become, it’s helpful to compare more with cities in Europe than other cities in North America, where car dependency is generally high enough that things like access to employment will obscure the effect of children on the car ownership decision.
  • I wasn’t successful in actually being able to listen to Brent Toderian’s interview with Stephen Quinn in the first week of January, so I took everyone’s word for it that he said what I said he did. (OK, so maybe I took the word of someone I know who works at the CBC a little more.)

I’m hoping to get to revisit this topic in a longer piece someday — what got left on the cutting room floor was me asking Richard how he felt about this topic. His response was, essentially, that the perceived need for owning a car made the decision to have children at all not a no-brainer, and inspired the final paragraph for my second revision. We both find practically every step of the ownership experience way more stressful than is worthwhile, for now. Perhaps seeing more families making a go of it successfully will eventually convince us otherwise. As always, it boils down to tradeoffs.

Policies on real-time ride-sharing and taxi-hailing: City of Vancouver to study Uber

I was interviewed yesterday by CBC Radio’s Michelle Eliot for her story on Uber making a comeback in Vancouver. It was timely, as I had just talking about Uber with a friend the week before that was prompting me re-consider my thoughts on it, which I blogged previously in 2012 (check out those posts here and here. Now that Uber is operating in 200 other cities, its previous retreat from Vancouver seems to be even sorer for both Uber and its supporters who enjoy using the service.

Here are my updated thoughts on Uber coming back to Vancouver for those who might be interested, some of which are in Michelle’s outtakes and some of which I thought of afterwards:

  • I’m in favour of the City of Vancouver’s studying not only Uber’s business model and its alignment with its other approaches to transportation, but also other taxi-related policies (such as allowing suburban taxis to do pickups during times of high demand). I hope their effort also examines the impact of new capabilities and models that said companies might put in place (like Uber’s surge pricing feature). One point I made to Michelle that did not make it to air is that by doing so, I hope that the City is able to establish a framework by which to evaluate and work with all new ride-sharing applications. Uber is unlikely to be the last (and we even have one local company, Pogoride, offering its take on the space as well).
  • The counter-argument Uber and its supporters have been making is that the law is stacked against them, thus it was necessary for them to operate outside the bounds of the law in order for people to know what was possible and thus gather momentum to drive change in a static, closed space. I would not disagree that there needs to be much more transparency and accountability around how decisions around taxi licensing is made – one good thing that has come out of Uber’s efforts has been to draw attention to how opaque this generally is in every city. It may be a little too much to hope that we’ll reach our ideal solution in one fell swoop, especially given how complex a problem transportation is to begin with, but chipping away at that opacity might help build some trust in the system.
  • In San Francisco recently, the SFMTA and the California Public Utilities Commission conducted a joint study on the impact of transportation network companies on the taxicab industry. One of their findings (I’m quoting from this SF Examiner article):
    Transportation network companies, unlike cabs, are not required to accommodate wheelchairs. Total wheelchair pickups by wheelchair-accessible taxis dropped from 1,378 per month in March 2013 to 768 per month this past July because it was difficult to get drivers to commit to the program that takes more time and money.
    The nature of custom transit and paratransit services is different in every city, but I did wonder back in 2012 whether these were the kind of programs and initiatives that would be affected by Uber’s entry. With aging demographics, high demand for HandyDART services and no signs of any increases in service, this is not likely to be any less of a problem. While Uber may be itself a solution to this for some, it still leaves an open question of whether and how willing we will be to find workable solutions.
  • Taxicabs are expensive in Vancouver, there is no doubt. Some of those may be for stupid, outdated reasons that need to be extinguished. But as we broach the question of pricing our roads — as we are starting to do in Metro Vancouver – I welcome opportunities to include Uber in a conversation about the kind of mobility system we want. That conversation should include, but not be restricted purely to, the one we are already having about Uber’s streamlined experience, convenience, and flexibility for drivers and passengers alike.
  • Uber does have a contribution to make for sustainable transportation systems, by adding more degrees of choice for multi-modal living. Michael Harden shared his experience of going car-lite using a combination of public transit and Uber. Like car-sharing and pay-as-you-drive insurance, these all have a role to play in shifting our mobility patterns away from all cars, all the time, especially in places where walking and cycling may still not be commonplace.
  • The conversation about Uber reminds me that we’re going to be having lots, lots more discussions like this as the full weight of our network capabilities comes to affect established industries and practices. Gordon Price forwards along an article from TechCrunch about a month ago: When Old-Economy Jobs Become New-Economy Gigs. The nature of human work and livelihoods in the face of increasing automation is the shadow that looms large for me in a number of discussions. (Our jobs, clearly, will be to build and maintain those robots.)
  • I support real-time ridesharing and innovation for mobility and transportation, as well as policies that enable it. But given the complexity of interests at stake, I have been very unimpressed with and skeptical towards Uber’s approach to listening or addressing concerns about the way it does business. I welcome them back to town – when we have our eyes open to how we can address its downsides and enjoy its upsides.

More, I’m sure, to come.

Introduction to Open Data: video lecture for Technicity technology for urban planning course

I was asked by Jennifer Evans-Cowley and Tom Sanchez, the instructors of the Technicity online course on the future of technology and cities, to contribute a 15 minute video lecture on the topic of Open Data. The course formally starts on February 26th, in a couple days. My video will be incorporated into their materials on “Entrepreneurial Urbanism” in Week 4. Many thanks to them both for the opportunity to talk about what I find exciting about open data!

Check out the video:

Early on in the process of scripting what I wanted to say in the video video, I decided to make it an introduction rather than a deep dive, as the course is open to those without a technical background. I also settled on emphasizing the parts of open data activity that excite, interest and concern me the most as a urban planner as I think this is the perspective that is not yet very well articulated. In a few days, I’ll be sharing some lessons and takeaways from making this video on both the content side and with regards to producing it. In the meantime, I’d love to hear any comments or feedback you might have on it!

I have also made it available under a Creative Commons license, so if there are parts of this video you wish to incorporate into your own work on the topic, please feel free to do so.

Presentations and new website forthcoming!

I am currently in the midst of overhauling this website to be more of a portfolio in addition to featuring my blog writing (which I am also figuring out how to do more of).

In the meantime, here are some links to things that may be of interest:

  • I’ll be speaking at the BCLA Connect 2014 conference in Vancouver on the work of the Vancouver Public Space Network, along with two other volunteers, Jaspal Marwah and Jonathan Bleackley. The event is happening Tuesday, April 1. I’m really looking forward to the conference, which is the annual conference of the BC Library Association. The organizers have done an amazing job at convening varied speakers and crafting an interdisciplinary program involving technology, the public interest and the information experience. I’m ecstatic to get to attend and am very thankful for their invitation to participate. Here is the abstract of our presentation:

Since 2006, the Vancouver Public Space Network has been a volunteer-driven non-profit organization doing advocacy and outreach on issues of public space and the public realm in and around Vancouver. Our interventions and projects have sought to bring the public’s attention and awareness to the wide range of values and uses of public space — from its role in community-building, sustainability and livability, to the unique part it plays in political and social expression. In this session, Jonathan Bleackley, Karen Quinn Fung, and Jaspal Marwah will highlight this diversity with a walkthrough of the VPSN’s activities. From making spaces to share meals, throwing dance parties on public transit, staging a public square design competition and orchestrating mobile phone-powered photo scavenger hunts, to mobilizing volunteers to collaborate on large-scale art installations or collect data on what features make for good public spaces, we hope this session will inspire libraries with simple ways to observe, understand and better connect the people in your communities into an engaging, lively and cherished place.

See what else is planned on the BCLA Connect conference schedule. I’m looking forward to connecting with interesting likeminds there — which I am almost certain, based on my past experiences of the the awesome librarians in m life, I’ll have a fantastic time doing.

  • Also coming out of my work with the VPSN, my talk at Pecha Kucha Night Richmond 2014 volume 4 from November 2013 is now online on the City of Richmond’s YouTube channel, featuring myself and Celia Chung speaking on the connection of walkability and public space to public transit.

  • I’m also looking forward to attending Vancouver’s Open Data Day activities, now open for registration. I’m interested in two projects: I’d like to dive in a bit with Open Trip Planner and TransLink GTFS data. My backup project is scraping and parsing City of Vancouver PDFs of meeting agendas and minutes to do keyword watching. For the first project, I’m not sure I’ll have a development environment set-up for doing so, so if this is something you are interested in and can help out with, or if my backup project appeals, please reach out to me (on Twitter or by e-mail, my first name at my domain name.

I’m excited about breathing some life into this blog. A lot of the work so far has been tackling the age-old question of what I can to do to not only blog more, but more intentionally with regards to the things I’m wanting to achieve.

Almost into June: FCM, NetSquaredCamp 2013, and my podcast!

This weekend, the intrepid organizers behind the NetTuesday Vancouver meetup are holding NetSquaredCamp. I attended the one in 2012, as well as one way back in 2010, and rather enjoyed it. I’ve yet to identify what precisely I want to get out of the event this year, since I’m in the middle of bit of a pivot in my research and career. The deeper thinking is forthcoming on that.

More recently, I also found myself inspired by Trina Isakson‘s presentation at the monthly Net Tuesday meetup, entitled, “How individuals are using technology and data to support vulnerable populations.” I found that presentation to be right up my alley, considering new avenues for individuals (not organizations) to make a difference for people with various challenges beyond the garden variety giving and volunteering.

Thanks to the good folks at Net Tuesday, there is a video of Trina’s entire presentation, and Trina has also made her slidedeck available via the website for her consulting business, 27shift. Her presentation was really refreshing to me — I’ve been wading, waist-deep, in the policy side of many of the same questions and issues she has been asking through her research, only more from a social enterprise and research lens. I see a lot that is inspiring there with regards to my own interest in collaborative governance. Her work served as a perfect reminder that there are many more people trying to bridge the gaps that I’ve been fixated with, from a number of directions, perspectives and tools. (I’ve also been enjoying Trina’s blog.)

I’m also following along (mostly on Twitter) with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities‘ Annual Conference being held in Vancouver from May 30th to June 3rd. Judging by their program and the tweets (#fcmyvr) there are a lot of interesting conversations happening about the growing role of local government in taking the lead on the decisions that shape the sustainability of our cities. I will be attending the Youth Panel and Reception on Friday, May 31st (tomorrow) and am hoping to connect with folks on the topic of scenario planning in local government.

Youth Summit Podcast

June is going to bring ramping up my podcast! Thanks to Check Your Head, I was able to record some fantastic interviews with fellow delegates at the Leading The Way Youth Summit. I’ve been letting them stew in my head for a little while, but the real work — edit, scripting and recording intros, putting the final spit and polish — is going to be happening more in earnest in the next little while. The task I seem to be dreading the most is choosing the right podcast music. Maybe I just have to remember what my printing production teacher in high school used to say to us all: “Let’s get functional before we get fancy.”

While I’m talking about high school, a quick story on the small world front — my information technology teacher, who taught me and a class of grade 10 misfits BASIC in 2000, had a nice write-up in The Globe and Mail. That class in high school was certainly a fairly prominent geek milestone in my life. I’m glad to see Eric Hamber maintaining and broadening its rep as a geeky school. (I had also run into him and his family very randomly just two weeks before the story was published, hence the small worldness.)