The loss of Greyhound can be the province’s gain

With today’s news that Greyhound is basically pulling out of BC, I was inspired to write to the Minister of Transportation urging her to turn this into an opportunity for better public transportation. The following is the email I sent, and I hope that others will encourage her to make such a plan happen.

Minister Trevena,

With today’s news about Greyhound’s withdrawal from British Columbia, and with the past failure of other privatised systems like BC Rail, I believe it is now long past time for British Columbia to develop a strategy for a transportation network that is truly public, fully integrated, and locally-, regionally-, and provincially-focussed.

The loss of coach bus service amongst the communities in our province will have serious impacts to those who reside in these communities as well as to those who live in larger urban centres and spend time in communities currently served by Greyhound. This will mean that people will be forced to choose amongst driving or flying (incurring a larger impact on the environment), hitchhiking (dangerous, at best), and not travelling at all. This province should not have to function in this manner.

I see this failure of the private sector as an opportunity for the public sector to serve residents of and visitors to British Columbia in a much better way. Besides the fact that until now medium- and long-distance travellers have had to rely on unpredictable, poorly operated, and overpriced Greyhound services, regional transit in the Lower Mainland is virtually non-existent outside of the very-limited-service West Coast Express. The Fraser Valley, in particular, is very poorly served overall, and access to Vancouver is almost necessarily by private motor vehicle. It’s time for us to do better.

As a former resident of Ontario, I look to the model of GO Transit for a regional transit system that, for the most part, serves residents quite well. Here in BC, we already have an intraprovincial bus system in BC Bus North.

As a first step, I would like to see the province step in and acquire the equipment, and hire the staff, to operate the existing Greyhound coach routes within BC (along with the previous connections to Calgary, Edmonton, and Whitehorse) when Greyhound withdraws later this year.

But I believe this should merely be step one. Here in the Lower Mainland, I would like to see this service work with Via Rail to expand the facilities at Pacific Central station to become a hub for true regional transit, along with opening up this facility to the public (it is currently guarded for passengers only). This service would provide regular express coach service along the Squamish/Whistler/Pemberton, Surrey/Langley/Abbotsford/Chilliwack/Hope, and Coquitlam/Maple Ridge/Mission corridors, for starters, though express service from Vancouver to suburbs currently served by slower TransLink services (Delta and White Rock, for example) could also be included. Similar expansions could be done in other growing regions (for example, along the Vernon/Kelowna/Penticton corridor, or the Victoria/Duncan/Nanaimo corridor), and additional service should be provided to smaller communities throughout the province in order to improve mobility with the minimum of environmental impact.

In the longer run, more popular coach routes could be replaced by suburban, regional, and long-distance (high speed) train service. This service could also investigate a second Vancouver terminus at an expanded Waterfront station, making use of existing rail lines and/or a bus terminus built on a deck over those rails.

I believe that mass transportation is something that can only be accomplished well by the public sector, and the failure of the private sector in serving this role provides proof that we should move forward as a province to provide this service. It is also only under a public sector mandate that we can achieve the efficiencies required to make the service truly integrated and useful for the public. For example, planning could be integrated to ensure the regional and intraprovincial bus and train services connect properly with existing transportation services provided by TransLink, BC Transit, and BC Ferries. Fares could be integrated, too, on a province-wide version of a Compass card (or some similar equivalent) that could work for foot passengers on all of these services, as well as on bike shares and other local transit connections like the False Creek Ferries.

I sincerely hope these ideas are given serious consideration, and in any case I hope that the government finds a public solution to address the void in transportation services that will soon affect most of this province.



Time For A Change – A Fantasy Platform for Vancouver

As recent weeks have shown us what might be the dying breaths of Vision Vancouver, and with an election on the horizon where none of the major parties seem to have their leadership candidates sorted out, we are living in a temporary political vacuum. With no one putting forward their ideas for the future of Vancouver, I figure now is a good time for a blue sky view. I’m not running for office, but hope to contribute to furthering the debate in our city. Call this a fantasy platform, a manifesto, or maybe just lunacy, it’s my two cents.

In the six years or so that I’ve lived here, virtually all the local political debates have been not about how to ensure we can pay for all the things we need, but how to best make use of the limited funds we’ve allocated to ourselves. There is another way.

Raise Property Taxes

I’ve previously written that I think Vancouver is long past due for a significant property tax increase. I propose phased-in tripling of property taxes. I’ll explain below where I think the money should go, but even if we didn’t need it I think there’s value in increasing property taxes at this stage of Vancouver’s history.

We are in a time of record-high property values, and a time where most of the city’s wealth is tied up in its real estate. Anyone who owns their home in the city (myself included) has seen annual percentage increases in value in the double digits, but property taxes in 2017 were set at a mere 0.255489%, including the amounts that go to TransLink, the school boards, and Metro Van. This rate is likely to be lower in 2018 if the status quo is maintained, because the city sets the amount of property taxes it wants to raise and adjusts the rate to match it – when values go up as much as they have lately, this means the property tax rate goes down. Indeed, the 2017 rate is almost 0.1 percentage points lower than it was in 2015.

I made comparisons to other cities in a previous entry, but let’s look at it from the perspective of the property owner. Even if property values were to increase at a much more modest 5% (an unlikely low amount in this city), a property tax rate of 0.75% (likely lower, for the same reasons mentioned above) brings the return on investment down to 4.25% – this is still better than a lot of investments that are less likely to maintain value, but frankly still quite reasonable. Regardless, we could continue to increase property tax rates and owners would still be far, far, ahead of those who don’t have the capital to buy into our overheated market. To put it another way, on a million dollar home, the cost of holding it long enough to get a $50,000 increase in value (one year at 5%) is $7,500. That seems more than fair.

This could also have some added side benefits. If the return on investment is decreased (by virtue of having to pay more property taxes) this reduces the economic return on property. This is pretty meaningless to those of us who live in our homes, but for those who are investing, speculating, flipping, or otherwise dabbling in our housing market without living it, this is just one more reason either not to do these things or, at least, to be willing to put less money into them. It could have the effect of cooling the property market, which is badly needed.

Mostly, though, now is the time to capitalise on the property value growth in the city – we do indeed need this money, and we have lots of infrastructure development to catch up on. It’s also time to shift the city’s revenues away from developer contributions (13.1% of the city’s revenues in 2016), which will eventually dry up when the city is fully developed, and towards long-term sustainable taxes.

Last time I raised this, some people raised some valid concerns – the biggest being that there are some people who have owned their houses since they were affordable (or inherited them from decedents who bought them that long ago), but who have very little income to pay the taxes. For seniors, there is the ability to defer property taxes altogether until sale, so while I don’t think public policy should encourage empty nesters to sit on oversized homes while young families can only afford one bedroom apartments, I think this policy should remain and would prevent them from being affected. For others, there is always private debt – it is not difficult to borrow against the equity of a million dollar home. Even after paying the interest, the ongoing value increases in their home will more than make up for any economic loss in these situations. Finally, I would make the case that serving entrenched interests is not the goal of my proposal, because those of us fortunate enough to own homes in this city do not need the help – everyone else does.

Property tax revenues for the latest year with data available, 2016, came to just under $721 million. They were budgeted to increase to a little over $750 million for 2017 and around $785 million for 2018. As a phase-in, I would suggest increasing taxes by 50% of the 2018 amount in each of the next four years (2019-2022). This would bring property tax revenues to $1.2 billion in 2019, $1.6 billion in 2020, $2 billion in 2021, and $2.4 billion in 2022. That’s an extra $1.6 billion per year that could be invested back in the city’s infrastructure.

Reduce Reliance on Metered Street Parking

Increasing property taxes could also help reduce the city’s reliance on other kinds of revenues. For example, the city brings in $87 million a year from parking, which includes metered street parking. For a variety of reasons, street parking is a very inefficient use of the city’s limited real estate: it significantly impedes bus travel, causes delays for those driving in the second lane while people pull into and out of the parking lane, and create significant danger for cyclists. We could eliminate on-street parking on major routes and throughout downtown and shift the revenues into property taxes, and free up space on our roads at the same time. This may require EasyPark to build new parkades in select areas, which could also be financed through the extra capital available from tax revenues.

Maintain Other Taxes

The city recently got the ability to levy an “Empty Homes Tax” to discourage people from acquiring homes and leaving them empty – i.e., not renting them out or living in them themselves. I support this tax and suggest that it, too, could be increased over time – I would want some data before suggesting such a thing.

Previous governments have suggested they would like the ability to levy a luxury home tax on homes valued over a certain dollar amount. I also support this, though it is not a power the municipal government currently has. There are other ways to solve the luxury home problem, and I’ll mention some below.

Increase Utility Charges

The city loses a little over $20 million a year on utilities. The utilities it provides – water, local energy, and refuse removal – are all things that should be priced at a rate to discourage their use, not at a price below cost that incentives environmental damage related to water, energy, and solid waste. I believe that prices on these utilities should gradually be increased until these services break even – we should not be subsidising the use of these services.

That said, water in particular is an essential service and those with low income will not be able to handle significant increases in costs. I strongly believe that offsets and grants should be provided to people based on their income to prevent any serious negative consequences as a result of this policy.


Now that I’ve created a massive surplus (the city already has an annual surplus, but an extra $1.6 billion a year by 2022 is a lot of money), what would I do with it? Well, I can think of a number of things that could use improving in this city, and it will take money. Not having access to any of the necessary data, I have of course not costed this except where noted. Some of these things would need to be phased in along with the tax increase.

Most of my suggestions are long-term, capital projects. The City of Vancouver has grown from a small town to a big city, and is starting to deal with big city problems without the big city infrastructure to back it up. We have some great examples of good planning and investment, but for every success story there are many shortcomings lurking in the wings. It’s time the city made some “once and for all” investments.

Increase Operating Funding to Existing Departments

By many accounts, pretty well every city department is underfunded. Permit processing is taking obscene amounts of time, delaying development projects and approvals for local businesses. Maintenance crews during last winter’s snowmaggedons were virtually nonexistent, and some of the worst unshovelled sidewalks were on city property. Emergency services are overwhelmed with issues relating to the opioid crisis, which does not seem to be diminishing. I would propose a one-time across-the-board increase to department budgets by 10% (total cost, based on 2016 actuals, approximately $150 million), with a review done going forward to ensure departmental needs are met. It is likely that departments responsible for approving permits would need to receive an even larger increase in budget to help them catch up on the existing backlog.

Build More Housing

The biggest issue facing the city right now is housing. We don’t have enough of it, what is here is too expensive, and for most renters all housing is unstable. I believe that we need to address both supply and demand, and stop pretending that the entire problem is too many ‘undesirables’ making up the demand for housing. I believe that a significant increase in property tax as well as the empty homes tax are about as much as the City of Vancouver can do within its power to address the problematic demand from people who purchase property without occupying it themselves or renting it out. I’m now going to focus on the supply.

While the goals of the current modular housing projects are admirable, they don’t really provide permanent solutions, only temporary and cheap ones. I don’t think we need to have glamorous or expensive public housing, but we do need long term public housing solutions to solve this long term problem.

I propose investing a significant portion of the extra tax revenues generated into building permanent public housing through the city – even in the rich neighbourhoods that oppose them at every step. This could be done by utilising undeveloped city-owned land (like the massive VPD surface parking lot East of the Cambie Bridge), and by acquiring property where possible. We should not stop building until there are no longer any homeless people in the city – and I go beyond simply street homelessness in this. This is a lofty goal, but previous governments have proposed ending homelessness without meaning it – an ambitious building project puts real action behind it.

The city is also currently in contracts with a number of social service agencies for a variety of social housing that is often leased from private property owners. The city should invest directly in these properties and make them permanent facilities. Efforts should be made to work with First Nations housing organisations in the city to ensure that culturally-appropriate housing is available for indigenous residents of Vancouver, which may in some cases involve returning property to local First Nations from whom the land was taken in the first place. The governance of public housing buildings should be, where possible, given to residents to allow tenants to “take ownership” over their rented homes in a meaningful way.

Providing housing to those who most need it for little or no cost will, in addition to helping those who receive it, also help those who are just barely getting by now but are not homeless. Taking pressure off the extremely competitive market for affordable rental homes at any end of the market (even the lower-cost end) can only improve on the existing situation in market rentals.

Make it Easier for Property Owners to Build More Housing

Other changes can be made at little to no cost. A proposal was made last year to rezone the West Side’s mansion district to allow for more subdivision of the massive properties. This would incentivise development and densification, providing more supply to the market, but would also lead to higher property value assessments and higher taxes on these luxury homes. Not a perfect solution to the inability to levy luxury homes taxes, but an improvement over the current situation.

Zoning across the city should be evaluated to ensure the best use is being made of the limited land space that Vancouver has – particularly around SkyTrain stations, where density is logical. This includes the areas around Nanaimo, Renfrew, 29th Avenue, Rupert, and Joyce stations which have nowhere near the neighbourhood densities of their cousins East of Boundary Road.

Zoning, generally, should not be used to further entrench existing property owners, but to open the possibility of new property owners and to allow more people into housing that is accessible and affordable. This would take a variety of forms, from typical high-rise apartment buildings to more allowances for laneway housing, low-rise apartment buildings and townhouses. Those last two are often left out in our housing plans and should not be overlooked – it is possibly to build density that is somewhere between a single laneway house and a massive tower. Heritage preservation should, of course, be maintained, but should not be used as an excuse to prevent development on lands that are currently undeveloped or occupied by non-heritage buildings.

Encourage Better Buildings

Developments should still be required to fund or build affordable housing within their projects. The policy requiring family-sized units to be built in new development is also a good one, but more needs to be done to ensure this doesn’t just mean building more luxury apartments that no one can afford. Incentives for build-to-let buildings and co-ops should be continued and expanded, to ensure a steady supply of new rental buildings. And earthquake-proofing should be accelerated, with an aim for all buildings (not just housing) to be seismically upgraded by 2025, through a combination of building code changes and municipal grants to facilitate it.


The city is mostly responsible for roads and active transportation, but does have some ability to get involved in public transit. There are a number of shortcomings in this city’s transportation network, which is especially disappointing in light of the Greenest City brand machine.

Usable Sidewalks on Every Block of the City

The city should budget the capital to build sidewalks on every block of every street in the City of Vancouver. It’s embarrassing that in Canada’s third largest city we have many streets with no sidewalks at all, or sidewalks on only one side of the street. This makes active transportation inconvenient, unpleasant, and often dangerous. The city should immediately commence construction on all the missing sidewalks throughout the city, particularly in East and South Vancouver which are oft-neglected in city spending. After this project is complete, another round of construction should repair or replace sidewalks that have degraded over time – last winter was particularly rough on our sidewalk infrastructure, and I’ve seen little to no work done since then to fix them.

Make it Safe and Pleasant to Cross Streets

The city should also move to make active transportation more efficient and accessible by ensuring that pedestrians can cross in all directions at every intersection – too many intersections currently have physical and/or signed prohibitions on crossing in certain directions, even in very urban parts of the city. This applies at signalised intersections where continuing in a straight line often requires crossing the intersection three times because of a crossing prohibition, which is unacceptable. But it also applies at unmarked crosswalks on major roads which, while legal crossings, are dangerous to cross at – lights, stop signs, or at least marked crosswalks should be deployed to improve this situation.

Build the Broadway Subway Extension Already

A large amount of the money raised from increased property taxes could go towards funding the Broadway subway extension, which is forecast to cost in the range of $2 billion. A large portion of this funding should come from the federal and/or provincial governments, but with a drastic increase in property taxes the city could easily afford to fund a substantial portion of the project, even if it has to borrow to pay for it over 5 or 10 years. Construction should beginning immediately.

Build the Rest of the Broadway Subway Extension, and Others

As soon as design work is complete on the Broadway Line extension, staff dedicated to that project should be retained to start design on further transit expansions. A long term plan for SkyTrain (or other rapid transit) expansion throughout the city should be developed, and should include completing the Broadway Line to UBC, which should be done immediately after completion of the initial extension to Arbutus. Plans should also be developed for a Hastings line to replace the 95 B-Line.

Bring Bike Share “In House”

The city should buy Mobi out of its contract, and bring bike sharing “in house” either at the City of Vancouver or, if the province agrees to it, at TransLink. TransLink recently granted a large amount of money to Mobi, which is a private company, so TransLink clearly has an interest in supporting bike sharing. If the system is to expand beyond the City of Vancouver’s borders, it is critical that TransLink be involved. Cities like Toronto, Montreal, and Portland all run their bike share systems out of one government entity or another, and it’s been disappointing to see a private company squander public money on a bike share system that consistently overpromises and underdelivers. Once it’s run publicly, I would suggest a complete refresh of the poorly-maintained equipment (or a replacement with a station-free system or half-stationed system like SoBi), and an expansion at least to all borders of the City of Vancouver.

Replace Pedestrian-Controlled Intersections with Real Traffic Lights

The city should generally replace some of the backwards street infrastructure that the city has implemented over the years. Pedestrian-controlled intersections seems to exist as a result of choosing cost savings over safety. Their use is ambiguous, completely foreign to non-BC drivers, and regularly leads to conflicts on the road. Pedestrian-controlled intersections should all be replaced with full traffic lights, to reflect how they are treated in practice anyway and increase safety of all road users. Money should also be invested to optimise traffic lights for improved traffic flow and to restore priority to pedestrians and cyclists where possible.

Replace Traffic Calming Circles with Real Roundabouts or Stop Signs

“Traffic calming circles,” which are like roundabouts but follow backwards rules to them, should be replaced with real roundabouts or stop signs. They confuse virtually everyone and legally function as “uncontrolled intersections” which are strange things to put in an urban centre.

Complete Ongoing and Proposed Transportation Projects

A significant amount of the remaining additional money raised should go towards finish ongoing projects. The viaduct removal should move forward already – we have been studying this for over a decade, and need to get on with it. The city should continue ongoing active transportation improvements, such as the Cambie Bridge, 10th Ave, Arbutus corridor, and the complete street on Commercial Drive. I would add Main and Kingsway to the list of street that should be converted into complete streets.

Other transit projects should include the first few phases of the proposed light rail projects, which have been ready to go for years now but given less priority. Given the significant growth in population around False Creek, and the Granville Island 2040 plans, there is now a much larger demand for this service.

Funds should also be dedicated towards permanently converting Granville Street downtown into a pedestrian mall, and connecting it to the new greenway to be built on the Granville Bridge. Buses could be moved permanently to Howe and Seymour, which would reduce confusion and improve bus reliability.

Invest in Long-Term Homes for Cultural Institutions

Our cultural institutions, ranging from the Vancouver Art Gallery to the Museum of Vancouver and even the City of Vancouver Archives are all outgrowing their current homes. Money should be dedicated to helping our cultural institutions find permanent homes that will last them for the foreseeable future.

Pay Off Debt

If these proposals doesn’t use up all of the surplus our new taxes have created, we could use the remainder to start to pay off the approximately $1 billion in debt the city owes, so that future generations are not straddled with the debt of the current and past ones. I strongly believe that passing government debt on from generation to generation only forces future government to engage in even worse austerity, and that is not the kind of society in which I want to live.

Engage with the Community to Develop Priorities

I’m leaving this rather open-ended, because while I have my own pet projects especially when it comes to transportation, I know that others will have theirs. I think the city can engage in more open forms of governance, and allow people to propose ways to use this surplus. What is important is that we stop dwelling on how to divide up the pittance of taxes that we currently collect among cash-strapped departments. The city could create formal engagement tools beyond just inviting people to show up at city hall – a Talk Vancouver for the future that allows citizens to propose their own suggestions for how to invest the city’s wealth.

Some ideas that come to mind could include improving 3-1-1 service to provide more city services, and to expand the use of VanConnect for all departments (including parking enforcement) to use it. We could build more parks, invest in green energy and energy efficiency, or simply improve existing municipal buildings. We could open more safe injection sites, fund community health centres, and work with local First Nations to better serve indigenous residents. The possibilities are endless when we stop thinking of property tax dollars as a finite resource. I invite readers to comment on what you would spend such a surplus on.


Many will probably call these proposals radical, and to a degree they are – tripling taxes is unheard of in recent years. But I consider the status quo to be equally radical – a status quo in which homelessness abounds, the opioid crisis seems neverending, and our transportation networks are bursting at the seams. We can afford to make this shift towards a long-term sustainable public sector with well-funded and well-developed public infrastructure – now is the time to do it.

Open email to VSB representatives

Chairperson Janet Fraser, Vice-Chairperson Joy Alexander, and School Liaison for General Gordon Elementary Judy Zaichkowsky,

I’m usually not one to get involved in VSB politics at all, but the media reports today about General Gordon Elementary ( ) have truly offended me.

As someone who grew up in a Jewish household, and who now identifies as atheist and supports secularism, I find it shocking and offensive that somehow the principal at this school considers Christmas to be “cultural” while Hanukkah is “religious.”  It takes an immense amount of cultural privilege to claim that one’s cultural celebrations that are deeply rooted in religion are somehow completely devoid of religion.

While I support the notion of secularism in our schools, I also support multiculturalism and respect for diversity. I agree with the students in this article – “I have nothing against Christmas. I just think they should add more Hanukkah and other religions.” There is clearly a demand for the addition of other cultural objects, and to deny students their culture (whether it be founded in religion or not) is to deny them their identity. I shudder to think how this principal would react to similar requests from First Nations students.

While I understand the school board’s desire to allow autonomy to schools, the VSB does have the power to implement board-wide policies. While it may be too late to do something in time for this holiday season, I press upon you, and your colleagues at the school board, to develop a policy that allows for the inclusion of our city’s diverse cultures while maintaining secularist perspectives in the curriculum and programs of our schools.



Neal Jennings

A new leaf

This started as a Facebook post and it got really lengthy… I posted it anyway, but realised it would probably be more appropriate as a blog entry. Since it’s all about getting back to a happy place from the past, I figure maybe this is a good excuse to get back into writing here again. I’ve been promising myself I would do so for ages and still haven’t, so maybe this will be the only post I put up this year, or maybe it will create a whole new series. Regardless, here it is, in its entirety:

Sometimes, when it comes to music, one finds oneself in just the right place at just the right time.

I had that experience through the early 2000s. I was living in Southern Ontario, with slightly more time on my hands than I do these days and a seemingly-endless supply of student loans. I had my ears and eyes and heart open, and found no shortage of talent everywhere I listened. In those years I found Sarah Slean and Damhnait Doyle (and her Shaye bandmates Kim Stockwood and Tara MacLean) and Jeremy Fisher and Ember Swift and Danny Michel and Serena Ryder, and through these artists so many others who played in their bands or who toured with them or played at the same festivals.

Because all this amazing talent lived within a 100km radius of me, it meant I got to see them all perform regularly – at music festivals, street festivals, local tours, national tours, random one-off fundraisers, annual shows, in-residences, and workshops. I went on little road trips, big road trips, and took the occasional middle-distance flight, and music was a great excuse to go visit a new place I had never been before. I made friends with other fans, including a number of you who are still on my friends list here. We worked out ride-sharing, we swapped notes on what stores had the latest albums (or the coveted misprints) in stock, we helped each other steal setlists after shows, we kept each other informed when tours were happening, we swapped notes on who would be the next good artist to listen to, we even pooled our resources and formed our own street teams and websites.

I had no idea at the time how privileged I was to have the opportunity to experience so much great music (both live and recorded) in such a short span of time and within such short physical distances. A lot of this faded away somewhere around 10 years ago for me… I stayed in touch with a lot of the fans, of course, but these artists stopped touring as much, broke up with their bands, took (much-deserved) time for themselves and their families, focused on other projects, moved away, or a combination of these. I moved away myself in 2010.

Somehow, I never quite found that groove again – finding local music in Sydney took me awhile, and then I moved to Vancouver where a local band often has to leave town to make it big, since a “local” tour here involves driving for days across the province and not just a two-hour trip down the 401. Music has stayed a big part of my life, but I never found it in me to prioritise it and to go see live shows as much as I used to. I’ve continued to buy music, too, but often just single tracks instead of albums (thanks iTunes), and often just from the artists I’ve known for years who naturally have released less frequently. My radio listening transitioned from CHUM FM and Mix 99.9 to triple j to CBC Radio One. I would occasionally hear something new that I loved and buy it, but then whoever it was would never come to Vancouver, or my work schedule would somehow conflict and I’d miss their show and then lose touch. Artists’ email lists became used infrequently or poorly, in the age of facebook.

But something’s different now. 2017 has been a year of a number of great new releases by a number of artists I love both new and old. I haven’t added them up, but I’m sure I’ve seen more live concerts so far this year than I did in all of 2015 and 2016 combined. Music is back in my life. It’s still not exactly the same – the old days of following artists around Southern Ontario and Western New York may never return – but I’m pretty happy with this change. I only hope this trend continues.

Maybe one day Vancouver will become my new right place at the right time.

Email to Prime Minister Trudeau on electoral reform

[With copies to Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould and MP for Vancouver East Jenny Kwan]

Prime Minister Trudeau,

It’s unusual that I would have reason to contact you more than once in a month, yet here I find myself once again disappointed by your inaction on a fundamental element of your platform.

I’m especially upset by your latest comments in defense of your opposition to electoral reform, as quoted in this CBC article: 

I want to say unequivocally that while I absolutely do not support Kellie Leitch, or fringe parties generally, I still believe that fringe parties should be able to have seats in the house if they represent a significant enough portion of Canadians. When your argument against electoral reform is “I don’t want THOSE people in the house,” you’re fundamentally misunderstanding the very nature of democracy. You are also forgetting that our existing system led to Kellie Leitch being in parliament, so the status quo hardly seems to be solving this problem you’ve imagined. Government represents the people – all the people – government should not be formally established only to be comprised of people you like.  I’m upset that you would abuse the power you were given (by, I might remind you, a minority of Canadians) to further entrench our unfair electoral system.

I also want to dispel the myth that fringe parties will get to hold the balance of power (and, by implication, get to dictate government business).  You know who else holds the balance of power in a minority government with a fringe party with a few seats? Literally every other party in the house. That’s how our parliamentary system works. If the governing party is willing to form a coalition with a fringe party rather than co-operate with the opposition, that reflects on the government, not on the electoral system. You yourself talked about the need for ‘big’ parties and for the need for parties to co-operate with one another – it’s disappointing that you expect Canadians to believe you when you say directly contradictory things in the same sentence.

Finally, you stated “the fact that the NDP was absolutely locked into proportional representation, no matter what, at any cost, meant there was no give and take possible on that,” – this could easily be restated as “the fact that the prime minister was absolutely locked into instant-runoff, no matter what, at any cost, meant there was no give and take possible on that.”

I want to make it clear that I support an Australian-style instant-runoff system, just like you do. Of course, I would like this to come along with an elected Senate like Australia has, but acknowledge that has less popular support. Regardless, I would rather accept MMP or another form of proportional representation than continue under the antiquated, unfair, and barely representative form of democracy we currently employ.  I’m disappointed that you would allow your desire to hold on to power to prevent these very necessary improvements to our democracy.


Neal Jennings

Open email on 10th Avenue bike improvements, and the Mount Pleasant transportation problem.

I received this when I got home today:




My response:



I received on my door today a notice from an organisation calling itself “The Neighbourhood Stratas” (alternatively “Kingsgate Stratas,” as suggested by their email address), advocating against the proposed improvements to Prince Edward Street, and spreading some misinformation (particularly regarding the number of parking spaces to be removed). I have attached a photo of their cover letter.

As a unit owner and resident at The Uptown, 2788 Prince Edward Street, I would like to make it very clear that this organisation does not speak on behalf of me, and I suspect many of my neighbours would also say the same.  I assume, by virtue of the fact that the notice was left on my door and not my mailbox, that the building’s strata council is participating in this organisation, though we have yet to receive any meeting minutes that suggest as much.  Regardless, residents of the building have absolutely not been consulted on this topic at all. The strata does not have a clear mandate from residents of the building to proceed with lobbying on this matter.

All this said, I’d like to address the concerns highlighted in their flyer, as some of them at least are valid and worth addressing. I apologise in advance for the great length of this message, but I think that there are some very important issues to be addressed, many of which are much, much, bigger than this single project. As such, I’ve copied the mayor-and-council email address on here because there are broader development, planning, and transportation concerns impacting this situation.

First and foremost, I am strongly in favour of the street closure, parking removal, and one-way adjustment proposals as written. As currently designed, this portion of 10th Avenue (and in particular the “jog” at Prince Edward) is dangerous for people travelling by any means – on foot, on bike, or by car. I’ve previously attended open houses at earlier stages of the 10th Avenue improvements consultations and after several discussions with staff I’m convinced that there is no other way to solve this issue other than to change the half-block-jog to bicycle-and-pedestrian-only. As someone who walks, cycles, and drives through this intersection multiple times a day, the current situation is unacceptable.

Specifically with respect to access to my building, we have two parkades. One is a virtually-unused permit-only commercial parkade with access on Prince Edward Street, which I admit will have slightly-more-difficult access, though access via Kingsway-11th-Prince Edward is, frankly, more obvious than via Broadway anyway.  The other is the one used by people who actually live here, and is accessed from the laneway between Prince Edward and Guelph.  This laneway is accessible from 12th Avenue directly, and from 11th Avenue via Kingsway/Prince Edward or via Broadway/Guelph.  The proposals will not affect this access, at all.  If anything, I’d like to suggest that improved access to the laneway from 12th Avenue (especially turning left Eastbound 12th to Northbound laneway) and/or via a full traffic light at Broadway and Guelph might help to alleviate any parking access issues for our building that may be caused by this change to 10th Avenue.

The flyer also raises concerns that residents may have to leave the area via 11th to Kingsway, which would be difficult if doing anything other than turning right (Northbound).  The Kingsway and 11th intersection is, indeed, a disaster. With no signal and no crosswalks, it’s completely impossible to navigate by bike or on foot (this is officially an unmarked crosswalk, but on a six-lane highway, drivers do not respect this), and even by car is still very difficult to navigate – even if only making a right turn onto or off of Kingsway. I’ve personally been in more than a few near-collisions at this intersection.

I’d like to suggest that, rather than backtrack on the proposed plans (which I think are mostly sound), the city consider improvements to the intersection of Kingsway and 11th alongside the changes to 10th Avenue. In previous correspondence with the city, I was informed that I am not the only one to have raised the problem of this intersection, so perhaps the city can take a “two birds with one stone” approach and improve access for everyone by signalising or otherwise better controlling this intersection. In fact, this might give people less reason to drive down Prince Edward in the first place (since it will improve access to major roads other than Broadway), lightening traffic loads across the board.

The other two “concerns” raised by the flyer are with respect to several new developments opening soon in this neighbourhood – concerns that traffic measurements were taken recently without considering the impact of three new buildings currently under construction (presumably The Independent, The Duke, and Vya Living).  First, none of these buildings require access to Prince Edward Street at all – they all face Kingsway. The Independent will have its parkade access via Watson Street, several blocks away, and on the other side of Kingsway, so I don’t think it’s worth considering – given how difficult it is to cross Kingsway, I don’t imagine there’s a lot of risk of people trying to park on the East side of Kingsway for this building. The other two have parkade access from the laneway behind Kingsway, which is unaffected by the plans – there are no changes proposed to the mini-block between Kingsway and the laneway, on either 10th or 11th Avenue, besides the narrowing of 10th for the protected bikeway, but if anything this just moves bikes out of the way of motor vehicles – this block is usually so busy with bikes (in the summer at least) that there isn’t a lot of free space for people to drive anyway.

The two specific concerns with these new buildings were increased traffic volumes and loss of parking in spite of increased residents.  With respect to traffic volumes, it’s clear that the proposals made by the city are to reduce the volume of non-local traffic, since people who actually need to go to these blocks will still drive there anyway, but people who don’t will be frustrated by the traffic-calming (and blocking) measures. If anything, this frees up space on the mini-block between Kingsway and the laneway, because in theory the only people still driving there will be local residents and people going to Buy-Low Foods, as opposed to the current situation where this block regularly attracts rat-runners between Kingsway or Main and Broadway. Paired with the conversion of 10th West of Kingsway to Westbound-only, this will help reduce the volume of people using 10th-> Prince Edward or Prince Edward-> 10th to get between Main Street and Broadway without having to navigate the various no-turn intersections.

With respect to the loss of street parking in combination with the gain of large quantities of new residents, I would normally dismiss such comments since residents generally have in-building parking and visitors can come by other means. Generally speaking, I believe it is the city’s responsibility to encourage active transportation and public transportation use, and not to be concerned about storage of private motor vehicles on public property.

However, in this case this concern does speak to a broader issue of the increase in the number of residents in the neighbourhood. I’m strongly in favour of development and of increased density, generally, but this neighbourhood is about to be hit by a perfect storm of transportation problems. The latest development selling in this neighbourhood (on Broadway at Prince Edward) is marketing itself to be near a “proposed” SkyTrain station which may never come.  Bus service has been decreased consistently in the three years I’ve lived here (particularly on the 19), and buses are only going to get more crowded with the several new developments in the area, plus all the new housing the city is building just North of Broadway on Main.  I realise this is well, well, beyond the scope of the 10th Avenue team (which is why council is copied), but I hope that you could communicate to whoever is capable of addressing this that this neighbourhood badly needs a broader transportation plan, and one that addresses the increased number of residents with real, concrete, improvements.  I must reiterate that I think a AAA bike route, in the form of 10th Avenue (and Broadway, if I’m being greedy), and more bike share stations need to be part of this plan. The plan should also include completing the Millennium Line extension, and improving the pedestrian realm through traffic calming and improved crossings.  In the meantime, I’m living in a neighbourhood that is rapidly being built to Transit-Oriented Development density, without the actual transit to support it.

So to bring this back around to the original point surrounding parking, I can sympathise with concerns about loss of street parking for visitors and for car-sharing vehicles (the latter, frankly, often occupy about 50% of the on-street parking in this area). I think a lot of this could be remedied, on a short-term basis anyway, by negotiating for some space with Kingsgate Mall – there are currently no Car2Go or Evo parking spots in any of their three lots, and of course non-customers are not allowed to park there. However, their lots (particularly the large Buy-Low lot at 10th and Kingsway) are frequently virtually empty.  If even just the Buy-Low lot were opened to paid parking and/or some Car2Go and Evo spots, this could completely offset the loss of 20 (not 30 as implied by the flyer) parking spaces on Prince Edward.  I also wonder if you could clarify for those concerned whether any visitor and/or public parking will be available in Vya Living or The Duke.

To sum up this very long message (apologies again) – 1) the group claiming to represent the stratas in my neighbourhood does not represent me, 2) I encourage you to move forward with the improvements to 10th Avenue, 3) there are several other problem areas in and around the mega-block bounded by 12th, Kingsway, Broadway and Guelph that need to be addressed, the solutions to which I think should be expedited to address some of the concerns raised about the 10th Avenue changes (but these things need to be fixed, regardless), and 4) this neighbourhood badly needs a transportation plan; one that is actually funded and implemented as soon as possible. Further developments should, and I’m sure will, continue to come to this neighbourhood, but we can’t sustain any more until the transportation situation is addressed more broadly, including the completion of the SkyTrain to Main and Broadway.

Thank you for your time,

Neal Jennings

Anti-avoidance in the Property Transfer Tax Act

I won’t get into my thoughts on the impact of charging a higher rate of tax to non-Canadians here, but I noticed a strange choice of words in the BC Government’s Bill 28 from this week.  I wrote the following email to Minister De Jong who introduced the bill explaining it and thought I’d share it here.

Minister De Jong,

(With copies to my local MLA Melanie Mark, Minister Responsible for Housing Rich Coleman, and Opposition Spokesperson for Housing David Eby)

I was encouraged this week to see the government finally reacting to the real estate situation in the Lower Mainland.  While I personally do not agree with the widely-held view that non-resident buyers are the primary source of the affordability problem in Vancouver, I think that the changes made in this bill are a good starting point to improve the housing situation in the Lower Mainland. I am especially encouraged by the allocation of the funds raised by the new tax towards the Housing Priority Initiatives special account.
I would like to call to your attention something that I believe is a shortcoming in this bill, specifically with respect to the avoidance provision.  The way I interpret the new section 2.04 of the Property Transfer Tax Act, it applies only to the new Additional Tax, and not to property transfer tax in general. This is put into effect by the definition of “tax benefit”, being “a reduction, avoidance or deferral of tax payable under section 2.02,” where section 2.02 is the charging provision for the new additional tax.
I’m glad that this anti-avoidance provision is included in the legislation, and I’m especially encouraged to see the government has chosen the wording almost directly from ss. 245(2) of the Income Tax Act.  As a Chartered Professional Accountant, I believe the GAAR to be a robust tool for addressing tax avoidance. What I am concerned about, however, is that no such avoidance provision appears to exist anywhere else in the Property Transfer Tax Act.  Does this imply that, absent any specific avoidance provisions, general avoidance of the property transfer tax is still to be allowed?
Given the recent series of media stories showing the many ways in which property transfer tax can be avoided, particularly through assignment, I would like to suggest that before this bill is passed it be amended to change the avoidance provision. This provision should cover all property transfer tax, and not just the additional tax.  If I might, I would suggest changing the section number to 2.3 and changing the definition of “tax benefit” to: “means a reduction, avoidance or deferral of tax payable under this Act.”  In fact, this is the wording the Income Tax Act uses, so I find it curious that the wording was intentionally changed to exclude the regular property transfer tax. Given the intent of general anti-avoidance provisions, I see no reason that the regular property transfer tax should be exempt from anti-avoidance provisions such as this.
Yours sincerely,
Neal Jennings