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Archive for March 2015

Olson and the transit plebiscite

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bc-090528-coast-mountian-busesLots has been written about the coming transit plebiscite, one of my favourite piece a post by Gordon Price showing that the deficit of the Port Mann Bridge, promoted by anti-transit Jordan Bateman, represents nearly half of the cost of the proposed new transit plan.  Who’s incompetent with public money, really?

But the one that caught my eye recently is Geoff Olson’s.  The Vancouver Courier columnist is urging folks to vote no.  Here’s what he says, in a nutshell, and why I disagree.

(But first, here’s who’s talking: I’m an older white guy who commutes to work by car, Vancouver to Langley, and I will vote yes. I have many reasons, but here’s a key one: I don’t like the stress of driving. Sometimes after long days (and night classes), I’m tired, and I’m afraid of falling asleep at the wheel. I dearly hope it never happens, but it’s a worry. Asleep in a train, miss a station; asleep at the wheel, kill someone.  I’d like a realistic transit option.)

Olson starts his piece by quoting Eric Chris, who lives near UBC, who blogged that “traffic flowed just fine during the 2001 transit strike”.

Where to start with that one. Based on what evidence? That of a west-sider driving against rush-hour flow? This contemporary 2001 CBC article (and my own recollections) put a lie to this; traffic was worse. That said, it is true that buses (which stop frequently) and cars don’t mesh that well in traffic. And it’s certainly true that putting buses on the street increases traffic if these buses run empty. But they certainly aren’t; if the B-line buses disappeared, and all its riders turned to cars, I hate to think of what the Broadway traffic would be like. What the strike did is actually make life miserable for countless people; I knew students who had to abandon their summer job for lack of a means of transport. Nonetheless, there is some truth to the claim that transit does not, of itself, ease congestion: that’s because roads fill up with drivers until congestion occurs, leading some drivers to switch to a more efficient mode of transport. What transit does is precisely provide such alternatives. If Chris’s assertion were true, then the logical conclusion is that transit is unnecessary; but transit, in fact, increases overall system capacity.  But the relevance of this to the debate baffles me: more transit is needed, by whatever measure you use.

But where Olson goes over the top is in seeing a development conspiracy behind all this. He quotes Chris as saying

there is plenty of proof over the last two decades that hub to hub transport by TransLink is merely a ploy for businesses to make money from building the concrete intensive SkyTrain lines and concrete intensive condos along the SkyTrain lines.

This view is also echoed by UBC’s Charles Menzies, who blogs that

the transit referendum is about subsidizing the real estate development industry of the Lower Mainland. It is a wealth transfer from the majority to the elite minority who are raking in big dollars by revalorizing land through the development of public transit… UBC, for example, wants a subway so that they can realize the highest rate of return off the land they have.

Huh? Let’s parse this a bit. According to these two, the expansion of Skytrain is merely a ploy by real estate speculators (I would like to see the claimed proof, by the way). Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that the main part of the proposal has little to do with Skytrain; rather, it is about increasing the number of buses, bringing light rail in Surrey, expanding bike paths, etc. Still, let’s look at Skytrain, for which an expansion is planned  from VCC-Clark to Arbutus under Broadway. This happens to run under an area heavily built up, including a large number of recently built towers, to say nothing of VGH. Sure, there are still opportunities for development along the corridor, but they are few and far between. Where one could benefit from development is further west along the Broadway -10th avenue corridor, and there is no Skytrain in the works for that area. Talk about setting up a strawman.

But look at it another way: would development along hubs (aka, stations) be necessarily disastrous? Chris seems to imply so. But development along the old inter-urban railway lines gave us what developed into Aldergrove, Cloverdale, Langley City, Steveston, and many others. People got cheaper accommodation with commuting options, centres developed, and, yes, developers made money. The same is true, for that matter, of North Surrey when the Patullo Bridge first opened and then the Port Mann Bridge. As a city grows, new means to get from A to B are needed. Without them, job mobility and housing options would be severely limited, which would produce a crisis in housing affordability, dwarfing our already bad situation. Sure, the development industry – whatever is meant by that – stands to make money. But that’s true whether or not we get better transit; it has to do with growth, period.

Which makes me think that the Chris, Menzies, and other Olsons would rather see growth just not happen. It’s a west-side phenomenon, it seems, with older UBC types longing for the old days when Kits was synonymous with hippiedom with Greenpeace housed in a crumbling house on 4th. Yes, these days were cool; but they are long gone, guys. I think these folks are merely dressing up very selfish NIMBY arguments into self-serving specious concern about “transfer of wealth” and “regressive taxes” just to protect their nice neighbourhoods from development. This would preserve the neighbourhood character, yes, but also prevent any kind of development that could help with housing prices, such as increased density in the form of townhouses and appartment blocks. Egad, developers may make a profit, they say; what they really mean, if you probe a bit, is that they don’t want to make it possible for more people to live in their neighbourhood. Concern for the poor? Give me a break. And the worse is that none of this has anything to do with transit.

In a recent opinion piece in the Straight, Charlie Smith wrote

Stopping future funding of public transportation and leaving young people, students, and low-income workers waiting for longer periods at night to get home is far more regressive than a 0.5 percent hike in the sales tax. This, according to him, “runs counter to claims about expanded bus service reducing road congestion.”

Right on. But I want to leave the last word to facebook buddy Justin Berger:

This is really infuriating. Sure Olson, Chris, and Menzies are right that transit serves the interest of developers and military contractors such as SNC Lavalin etc as much if not more than it serves the likes of thee and me, but the implication that we can somehow thwart the evil capitalists by voting no is ridiculous…the powers that be will see that the mega projects go ahead no matter how people vote. Meanwhile a “no” note vote guarantees that the humble night buses that serve shift workers and handy dart which are already falling behind will be cut even closer to the bone.

Congestion didn’t worsen during the 2001 strike because, surprise surprise, people who need transit don’t have cars– people walked for hours and hours to get to work and school or else they had to quit or drop out. If we vote “yes” we have more authority to demand service for the people who need it most. If we vote “no” we can be smug in the knowledge that once again we didn’t compromise our pure politics and dutifully slew the good on the altar of the perfect, meanwhile billions go to road expansion for single occupant cars, no referendum needed.


Written by enviropaul

March 16, 2015 at 4:30 pm

Eating insects at Hawker’s festival

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Chef Gordon displaying his crickets at Hawker's festival

Chef Gordon displaying his crickets at Hawker’s festival

One of the star attraction of last week’s Vancouver Hawkers festival was the display of edible insects prepared by chef David George Gordon of Seattle.

I sampled some crickets prepared in a lime and corn salsa, which tasted wonderfully of lime and corn and cilantro. I also tried chapulina crickets dipped in molten chocolate: the dark chocolate was wonderful and rich, with a bit of spiciness, which makes sense since chapulinas are prepared with lime and chili. I also tried a cake prepared with insect protein powder (much too sweet for my taste).

I was a bit disappointed. After all, edible arthropods include some delicacies with unique taste: crab, lobster, shrimp, to name a few. But these insects, well, seemed to lack a distinctive taste: the tofu of the animal world, as it were. And there was nothing unique about the texture, either.

(I must admit, I was a bit reluctant at first, because these bugs come whole in their shell, and I don’t particularly like to crunch on shrimp shells. But these were so small, the crunchiness of the shells was barely noticeable – you had to pay attention. I did find a tiny leg part stuck between my teeth later, though; no biggy. Unless you’re squeamish.)

Chef Gordon is not the first one to bring edible bugs to Vancouver. Meeru Dhalwala, of Vij’s and Rangoli, pioneered cricket naan and parathas, and they were popular (they were discontinued because a reliable supply of insects is hard to secure).

But if there’s no distinct “insect-ey” flavour, why bother? Well, part of the appeal is environmental. Insects are abundant, and the ones that we eat are in no danger of disappearing. Insects are a very efficient source of protein, and can be grown without impacting on wild lands. Insects also excel at processing waste and turning it into protein. According to Dutch entomologist Marcel Dicke,

Cookies and cakes made with insect protein powder at Hawker's

Cookies and cakes made with insect protein powder at Hawker’s

insects are efficient to produce. They’re cold-blooded so don’t require the extra food energy for body warmth. Ten kilograms of feed produces one kilogram of beef, three kilograms of pork and five kilograms of chicken. In comparison, that feed produces nine kilograms of locusts. And insects are rich in protein, fat and vitamins. (One hundred grams of silkworm moth larvae contains 100 per cent of daily requirements for copper, zinc, iron, thiamin and riboflavin). Crickets are high in calcium and termites, in iron.

Insect foods are common in Latin America and South East Asia; in Laos, cricket farms have been touted as a way to end food insecurity, as well as being a means to produce animal protein that results into the least amount of greenhouse gases emissions. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has published several reports (here, here or here; or check out this congress here) about the potential of insect food – pointing out that lack of research and overall knowledge is holding back the potential of this resource.

There’s also the amazing potential of insects in converting organic waste into edible feed; one of the exhibitors at Hawkers was the start-up company OfBug, currently located at UBC, that produces mealworm for chicken feed using food waste as a feedstock: a faster, more efficient process than composting. But I’ll save that for another post.

Washing the street and a drought coming

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Commercial Drive, March 7th.  The mountains are bare except for a bit of artificial snow.

Commercial Drive, March 7th. The mountains are bare except for a bit of artificial snow.

Yesterday, walking down the street, I see an old man, shirtless, standing on the sidewalk with a garden hose. He notices me and smiles, seemingly very pleased with himself, or with this unseasonably warm and sunny weather.

But if I stare, it’s because I’m aghast in disbelief. With his the jet from his hose, he is flushing away some leaf remnants that have accumulated along the kerb. He’s washing the street!

I feel like yelling “Haven’t you seen the mountains? There’s no snow! No snow, and we’re barely in March, for crying out loud!” Who washes a street anyways? Surely, someone anal, who can’t tolerate any dirt, who probably sprays his lawn until there is only one species of grass surviving, who has no tolerance for diversity, who is likely to fall for either-or logical fallacies, or even – gasp! – vote for Harper.

So I figure I better not say anything. I’m already cranky because I’ve been collecting articles on the Sao Paulo drought (here, here, here and here). This is a city of 20 million running out of water, and I’m amazed by the displays of selfishness and stupidity I read about. Whatever happened to people pulling together in times of crisis?

(Sao Paulo, and much of South East Brazil, has been experiencing a drought unprecedented in extent. The reservoirs are drying up and water rationing, with dry periods, are in place. But folks in the nicer areas, having access to private water reserves, are barely noticing, while the parched favela dwellers are marching in protests.)

Here in Metro Vancouver, we collect the rain that falls on the North Shore mountains, and with relatively dry summers (there’s less rain here during

The water network and reservoirs of Metro Vancouver

The water network and reservoirs of Metro Vancouver

the summer than in Montreal or Toronto) we rely on snowmelt to fill our three reservoirs to tie us over the summer. And there’s barely any snow already.

On its website, Metro assures us that there’s no cause to worry yet; there are two or three months of potential snowfall ahead. Sure enough – but I’d feel more comfortable with a solid plan B. What if we, like California, or like Brazil, are undergoing an extended dry period? What then? After all, even Tofino ran out of water a few years ago, in 2006. Tofino, one of the wettest locations in the country! I, for one, would feel more comfortable with an early water conservation program: public education, and watering restrictions (no washing of cars, no watering of lawns; what’s the point of that, anyways?).

And no washing of streets! Poor guy, he’s really done nothing to deserve my wrath. No doubt he’s actually a very nice man, kind and well meaning, nothing at all like what my mind conjured up. But I’d still prefer if he would refrain from wasting our water washing the street.

Six months in Germany!

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Paul, the nerdy tourist, looking at "Efficient House Plus, with Electrical Mobility"

Paul, the nerdy tourist, looking at “Efficient House Plus, with Electrical Mobility” in Berlin

I’m going to Germany. With Dinah. For six months. Based in Hamburg. Pretty pumped!

Kwantlen has approved my application for an education leave (thank you). Ed leaves are granted for applicants who want to improve their education, do some research, or investigate alternative education systems.

HafenCity, the opera house (forever under construction, windmills in the distance)

Hamburg’s HafenCity, the opera house (forever under construction), windmills in the distance.

So I’m planning to investigate, but in more detail, some of the things I already wrote about: the Algae House, Jenfelder Au, and other stuff, as well as a bunch more (the EnergieBerg, the energy bunker, HafenCity) that make (or will make) Hamburg a model for green technology.

I’ll be taking a look at their garbage, as well; Hamburg uses a remarkable combination of incinerators, biogas generators, and composting plants that warrant a close look. (I’ve been aching to see these, but there are limits to Dinah’s patience when it comes to holidaying in Europe. Beautiful museum? Walk on the beach? Garbage incinerator? Mmmh, tough choice…)

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think Germany (or anywhere in Europe for that matter) is paradise on Earth. From rigid social attitudes to questionable policies (towards women, for instance), many things seem wrong to an outsider. Germans have their, hmm, peculiarities: the travel website Matador has a really funny set of posts (here, here and here) that poke fun at cultural contrasts between Germans and North Americans. But still – there is so much there that is inspiring to a North American like me.

I want to do what Chris Turner calls “the new grand tour”. There’s so much to see in Europe that inspires hope for the future; things that we still consider impossible or impractical already exist in Europe, built and running, and their new technologies are things that don’t even register here. For many North Americans, this is a sort of reverse culture shock; but for Turner, growing up as he did as an army brat in Germany in the 80s, the feeling is even more acute, and his description is worth quoting at length, because he nails how it feels. Back then he was the kid from cool Canada, a place all of his friends wanted to escape to.

37, Alfred Doeblin Platz: an ordinary building in Vauban, but energy efficient and festooned with solar PV

37, Alfred Doeblin Platz: an ordinary building in Vauban, but energy efficient and festooned with solar PV

Not twenty years later, I stood in the courtyard of the kindergarten in Vauban and felt something akin to vertigo at the dramatic inversion of roles. I also felt something I’d never experienced in Germany: naked envy. Worse than that—I felt deprived. Underprivileged. Needy. If only my kids could look forward to attending a school this lavish in its amenities, this thoughtful in its design, this enlightened and new. I felt a little bit like some miserable wretch on the deck of an old immigrant steamer, wrapped in a tattered blanket against the maritime chill, gazing in wonder at the New York skyline.

This is also how it feels for me. I do like old castles and stuff, but it’s the new Europe that fascinates me. I keep looking around, gazing at the windmills and solar farms, walking around pedestrian streets, whizzing around on amazing public transit, admiring tidy community gardens along the train tracks, wondering: why don’t we have this at home?

Why, indeed? Especially considering that Germany’s cities were flattened rubble at the end of the war, and could have been rebuilt in a car-dependant, sprawling model; they chose not to. And what a result! Turner, again, this time in Copenhagen:

Livability, it turns out, is a broad, car-free plaza in front of city hall, crowded on this day, serendipitously, by singing, dancing Chilean soccer fans. (My daughter was reasonably sure this was a show being staged for her benefit.) Livability is the movable feast of the Strøget, central Copenhagen’s high street, which first cleared its cobblestones of automobiles in 1962, in time becoming the backbone of a network of pedestrian-only avenues and lanes billed as Europe’s most extensive. Livability is a passing parade of street performers and ice cream vendors, tidy squares every few hundred metres with a fountain to climb on or a broad expanse to chase pigeons across. Livability is the temporary exhibition (yet more serendipity) set up in one of those squares, an assortment of multicoloured shipping containers retrofitted as miniature performance spaces. Livability is your four-year-old sitting for fifteen minutes in preternaturally still concentration inside one of these spaces, listening to a Danish guitar virtuoso play some enchanting baroque composition…Livability is a jet-lagged parent in the heart of a busy foreign city, able to relax entirely even as the preschooler darts deliriously ahead, because it is a gentle, sunny afternoon, and there are no fast-moving, thousand-pound steel boxes to watch out for. Livability, yes, is the space to effortlessly create a yawning afternoon’s worth of serendipity.

So, yes, I want to be there, I want to experience it all. I want to visit the ecological neighbourhoods (Vauban, of course, but also Kronsberg in Hannover, Nieuw Sloten in Amsterdam, Hammersby-Sjöstad in Stockholm) and the German “energy villages” such as Jühnde and Wildpoldsried, self-sufficient in energy. I want to see what makes them tick, get numbers and document their performance in greenhouse gas emissions, create teachable modules for my students at Kwantlen – but mostly, just absorb it all: feel the future.

The EnergieBerg: the old landfill now produces solar, wind, and biomass energy

The EnergieBerg: the old landfill now produces solar, wind, and biomass energy

But how did it get to be that way? I also want to take a look at the education system. For all its perceived rigid structure, Germany is full of nimble, flexible programs that focus on experiential learning and seem to easily span academic silos, something that seems almost impossible at home. For instance, here’s a link to a video that describes how students at HafenCity University, in Hamburg, were challenged to explore why the city was lagging in green roofs (compared to other German cities, not to here!) and created a set of documentation and a how-to manual, working closely with Hamburg planners (warning: the video is an hour long, but well worth it). There are many instances like that; I found several with simple computer searches, and I’m sure I’ll learn of others while there.

And it’s not just university level programs; environment, energy management, and sustainability are integrated throughout the curriculum. I want to check out the curriculum and talk with the instructors of the Alexander-von-Humbolt school, in Hamburg, that won the eco-school of the year award; I want to see how the EnergieWende topics are integrated to high school currics; I want to check out the alternative DO-school.

I want to do all that, and more. I’m pretty excited about it. And then it’s gonna be: Watch out BC, here I come. whenever I come back from Europe, I always get kinda restless, like I want to shake things up. But this time around, I’ll know more what I’m talking about. And maybe, just maybe, contribute to shaking things up back home.


PS: don’t take my word for it.  Click on some of the links.  You’ll see what I mean when I say “the future is there!”  Also dann, aufwiedersehen – I better go brush up on my German.

Written by enviropaul

March 3, 2015 at 5:33 pm