Archive | August, 2014

Vancouver’s 2nd Narrows Bridge by Bike

25 Aug
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I’ve lived in Vancouver on and off since 1988, of which most of that time has involved either living on the North Shore, or working there. Despite this, I have embarrassingly never ridden or walked across the Iron Workers Memorial Bridge, also known as the 2nd Narrows Bridge. So earlier in June I decided to take the plunge and bike east, rather than west, to get from Lower Lonsdale to a meeting in East Vancouver.

Getting to the 2nd Narrows Bridge by bicycle has a decidedly retro feel to it, reminiscent of how it was to ride a bike in a North American city in the 1990’s. Most of the ride involves either riding steep uphills to bypass extensive road works, or navigating a minefield of roads filled with belching cars and trucks. The section below is part of a enormous road configuration that will eventually move vehicle traffic away from the rail yards up to the hillside – a much needed upgrade, which will move motorists off a roadway that runs dangerously in the shadow of passing rail cars.
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The bike lane through this area is non-existent; however, I do have the impression that one will be in place once the road works are completed later this autumn.

East of this area one is forced to ride on the sidewalk, or share crammed roads with commercial vehicle traffic.

Access to the bridge is via a narrow onramp sidewalk.

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The bridge crossing itself is terrifying. Sidewalks are fortunately being upgraded, but in the interim, for the next two years cyclists and pedestrians are forced to share 1.25m of space, with minimal railings on each side. The space is so tight that I could not take any photos when bikes were around, as everyone would have to stop and wait while I took pictures. It also meant cyclists coming from opposite directions had to dismount in order to pass each other, unless they felt comfortable enough balancing between a terrifying drop to the bay below and the murderous freeway traffic on the other side. It was also rush hour and there were as many as 50 bikes on the bridge deck during my crossing. Some of the bikers seemed to be seasoned pros who had no problem passing each other without dismounting, I felt I should have been wearing a “I’m new, please don’t yell at me” shirt.

Yes, as much as I dislike cars, cyclists can be just as impatient and nasty as the worst of motorists. Just because someone is peddling two wheels doesn’t mean they suddenly become all honey and love. Some of the prickliest of commuters I have met have been cyclists wearing way too much spandex littered with expensive bicycle adverts.

The bride affords some stunning views, some of them so exposed that I got a good rush of vertigo just around midspan.

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On the south end of the bridge there is a tiny memorial to the Iron Workers who died when the bridge collapsed during construction. Most people will never visit the memorial or even know where it is, as the platform is jammed beside the sidewalk and the freeway curb.

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Leaving the bridge, one descends a steep series of switchback turns, down into a quiet industrial zone behind the grain towers and the Vancouver Shipyards. Traffic here is light, with numerous bikes passing on their way up to the bridge to the North Shore. A lovely separated bikeway takes one past Brighton Pool, where I stopped for a brief break. I’d never visited there before, and while the pool is nothing in comparison to Kits or 2nd Beach pools, it does have a stunning setting and gorgeous views.
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The ride up the Vancouver hillside is a surprisingly steep one, indeed I often forget how much of an elevation change there is between the water and the communities up at 1st avenue and further south. On my way to my destination I spent a good 20 minutes meandering through leafy streets lined with the finest of East Vancouver’s Queen Anne era homes, stopping occasionally for photos and to catch my breath.

A lovely ride indeed, but I will hold off doing it again until the new bike infrastructure is in place on the 2nd Narrows Bridge and in North Vancouver.

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My Vision is not a Laneway House

21 Aug

In 2004 I moved from Montreal to London with the intention of making a career transition from sales to marketing, while setting up a life on the European continent – it was a well executed plan built on 7 years of undergraduate and graduate education. In the end it did not work out. I had made the move too late in life, I didn’t hold a EU passport at the time, and London was never a place I aspired to live in, rather a city I enjoyed to visit, a stepping stone for moving to the European continent.

2005 was a reset, a return to the Westcoast. The objective was to build a property business, which would in time marry well with the construction company our family had established. It has been a battle, the details of which are not worth repeating here. At a global level, big changes of this sort often involve deep questions, they also lead to conflict, as different parties try to marry together often incongruent visions and expectations. Nonetheless, there has been success, as what was once a tiny holding of a one bedroom condo in the suburbs has taken fruit into something considerably more substantial. My hopes and aspirations are that the upward trajectory will continue and our property business will make the next big step in becoming an important contributor to the development of beautiful, smaller, more efficient housing in this fair and so beautiful place, “The Land of the Lotus Eaters”. 

I continue to devote considerable time and thought to this endeavour, as I believe it to be a worthwhile one. People need homes to live in, just as they need hospitals for care, and schools for learning. So why not make these homes beautiful? Why not make them just the right size for a Vancouver family – one or two people a room and not two or three rooms a person? Yes, how novel, small efficient beautiful homes that don’t waste space.

The latest challenge we are finding to executing our vision is the availablity of housing stock that can be developed into duplexes. For a city that is awash in condos and single family homes, the “everything in between” is neglected. It is as if the consumer and the smaller developers are channeled to one of two options: buy a condo in a tower developed by a large developer, or demolish a single family home and build a bigger single family home to recoupe the costs. Neither of these options is particulary appealing, and neither applies to our vision. Condos don’t build communities, rather they isolate people from each other and the street scape; bigger houses house less people and are an inefficient use of space and energy.

Lane houses have been pushed as the answer to this conundrum; however, I believe they are a misguided solution for two reasons. Firstly they are short sighted, as once the infill investment is made, the lot becomes indivisible should zoning change in the future. This means the land becomes locked in with a big house and a small house, when it could have been built as a triplex or fourplex – units that in turn could be owner occupied or rental stock. Secondly, lanehouses do not increase the supply of land stock for sale, as they cannot be sold separately from the principal house, which means that one of the residents will always be in a landlord position, while the other will in perpetuity be in the more precarious role of the tenant. The reality is that most people don’t want to rent, and most people do not want to be landlords, most people just want to own their own home that they can do with as they please. 

In Vancouver there is little hope the city will abolish the single family zoning in the forseeable future. This remains the biggest obstacle to delivering our business’ vision.

The Way Back from North Vancouver Lonsdale to Kitsilano

19 Aug
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My ride home follows more or less the same route, with some modifications. The most challenging part of the trip is navigating the rush hour traffic off the North Shore, which can be mayhem, especially if there has been an accident on one of the bridges. This may seem a rare occurrence, but in fact between the two of them, there are accidents on the bridges on a daily basis. At rush hour this can mean chaos, the kind of chaos that ultimately got me out of a car.

This is an area just entering the lower road (1st Street) from Marine Drive and 3rd Street. It has morphed into a substantial construction site as the City of North Vancouver and a developer swapped properties, giving City road works the south side of 1st, and the developer the north end. The result is a large high density project, which upon completion will hopefully do a lot to improve Marine Drive, one of the North Shore’s ugliest stretches of road. For the time being it is a dangerous section of road, where trucks and and cars often cross into the cycle lane, so much so that the lane paint has disappeared.

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On 1st Street the bike lane is littered with obstacles – signs, bumps, parked cars and trucks.

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The ride after this section is perfect to the start of the Lions Gate Bridge deck. Apart from an errant dog, the Spirit Trail is open sailing, populated with cyclists, walkers, and joggers most of the year.

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Part of the Provincial Highway 99 network, the Causeway and Lion’s Gate Bridge crossing is typically terrifying and should come with a parachute. As usual the sidewalk is shared between cyclists and pedestrians. Pedestrians can walk in either direction, which means more often than not one comes across a pedestrian oblivious to the world, listening to his music, sunglasses on, walking with his back to vehicle and cycle traffic – insanity. Only in British Columbia, “The Best Place on Earth” can pedestrians walk wherever they please without being responsible for their own and others’ safety. The results of such lawlessness can be fatal, as on this stretch of the causeway, where a cyclist was killed trying to avoid an mindless pedestrian.

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Cyclists easily gather speed on the causeway, and since the sidewalk is narrow, traffic is loud, and bushes are overgrown, communication between cyclists and pedestrians is challenging – I personally use an air horn, which is useless when a walker has their back to me and is engrossed in their telephone.

The causeway ends here.

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No barrier separating cyclists from death at the hands of a wobbly SUV.

The cycle through the West End is a bit busier than in the morning, as most people are out of bed and on the seawall, especially if the sun is showing its face. The most congested area of the Seawall is at the Cactus Club, where cyclists, cars, and pedestrians converge on several square meters of space. This area was not the most intelligently designed, and it still bewilders me as to why Vancouver has not considered removing one of the 7 lanes of roadway that connect Beach Road with Denman to widen the seawall in that area.
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Getting from the West End to Burrard Bridge has its challenges, involving riding Beach/Pacific Roads up to the start of the bridge. There is often congestion on Pacific, and motorists almost always speed to get to the lineup as fast as possible.
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Burrard Bridge is currently undergoing a renovation, the first in its 81 year history, as far as I know. The roadwork has caused some delays and inconvenience for motorists, this despite the fact the city has made it abundantly clear that Granville Bridge is just two blocks away and has 4 lanes of mostly empty road – people prefer to sit in traffic rather than try a different route.

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While the bridge work is still ongoing, the south end of the bridge has been completed. The result is a drastic improvement from the parking lot that once was the gateway to Kitsilano. The new layout moves cars, pedestrians, and cyclists safely and efficiently, all while requiring less road space.

These are a couple of pictures from before, when cyclists and pedestrians shared the sidewalk.

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And when the tree and Kitsilano welcome sign sat in the middle of 12 lanes of converging traffic.

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And this is how it looks today.

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There is still work to do on the Kitsilano side. The Park Board bungled the plan to implement a bike lane in Kitsilano Park, and Cornwall still has no bike lane to connect the bridge to the bike way on Point Grey; however, this is a work in progress. The Councils, mayors, and Squamish Band should be commended for their vision in working to building a safe pedestrian and cycle network in Vancouver and the North Shore. Now if only the Province would get on board and fill in the gaps.

To follow, time for the “big league”, your merry cyclist changes it up and goes 2nd Narrows!

My Commute from Kitsilano to North Vancouver Lonsdale – There

12 Aug
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A recent series of articles in the Globe and Mail on commuting and transit caught my attention today (1). While I no longer really read Canadian “newspapers”, as the quality of the journalism pales in comparison to the likes of the Guardian, the Economist, or Le Monde, they unfortunately remain one of the few options for Canadian news.

Journalism in Canada is sick and rotten, it is the most concentrated of all media agglomerations in the developed world, far outscoring the United States for concentration of the press in the hands of the few (1). Canada has become a model for pervasive digital convergence, where newspapers have become a tiny piece of a content pie owned and channeled through just a handful of major portals: Bell, Rogers, Postmedia, Shaw and Quebecor. In some regions of the country the reader has literally no choice, as is the case in Vancouver and Montreal, where the news media is entirely owned by a single source – Quebecor in Montreal and Postmedia in Vancouver.

I digress, back to those Globe and Mail articles. As a two bridge commuter I have tried everything to make my journey as efficient as possible – car, bus, metro, ferry, bike, you name it. After years of driving I gave up my car to go with transit. This was motivated by bridge traffic fatigue, rising gas prices, and the cost of running a car. This option did not last, as I soon tired with sitting on crowded buses stuck in traffic, and grew frustrated with being forced to buy a two zone pass even though my commute was only one stop outside of my zone. Truth be known, I have long been a proponent of touch cards and fare gates used by sophisticated transit systems such as Transport for London, or Transantiago, where fare is charged by distance travelled and not by arbitrary zone maps (2).

So I eventually gave up on transit and switched to cycling. This option has provided certain benefits, with the obvious ones being that I no longer have to spend time and money on running a car, or money on a two zone transit pass. One unexpected benefit is I now need to eat copious amounts of homemade cookies in order to keep weight on – something unfathomable when I was a motorist. 2014-05-27 22.40.33
Yet cycling is not all cookies and cream, it is a battle against rain, cars, sleet, sun, and other bikes. From April through to October the levels of rush hour congestion on certain bike routes approaches the intolerable, with pinch points on the seawall and Burrard Bridge. These congestion zones are prone to accidents, as everyone converges together in a cacophony of bicycles and scooters. November’s cold rain puts out the party and empties the streets for most of the winter.

So what about my bike commute, what is it like? I start my day at here, on one of Vancouver’s most beautiful streets in one of Canada’s most rarest of neighbourhoods.
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Here the streets are narrow, the blocks are small and on a grid, and the scale is perfect for a pedestrian and a cyclist.
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I consider myself fortunate to live in such a place, but also find it inherently unfair that other Canadians do not have the option to also be able to live like this. This is something government and Canadians need to address. It requires bold leadership and a real cohesive plan from the levels of government with money and power: Ottawa and Victoria.

My commute takes me from Kitsilano to the city core over Burrard Bridge. This is where it gets tricky – squeezing everyone into the space of a sidewalk. This picture was taken at 9:15, so the rush hour crowd was long gone.2014-06-06 08.59.23In the morning there can be upwards of 30 cyclists converging at the south end of the bridge, and there is usually at least one who left home late and is in a hurry.2014-06-06 09.00.46

From the bridge I turn south down the alleyway to access the seawall, which at the present time does not link up to the bridge. 2014-06-06 09.04.42As a result I ride along Beach Road to the intersection at Pacific and then take the sidewalk to reach the seawall, as the alternative would be to try making a left turn from Pacific – not ideal at rush hour.

The Seawall connects nicely with a shared bike road route across the West End to Stanley Park and under the Causeway. From there I head North along Pipeline Road, across the wooden bridge and up one of the trails to the head of Lion’s Gate Bridge. This section of the route only has one tricky area, which requires expert navigation across Pipeline Road to the wooden bridge. 2014-06-06 09.20.21Many motorists speed on Pipeline as they use it as a shortcut to get to Lion’s Gate Bridge; they are also not expecting cyclists to turn left to the wooden bridge, as while it is marked as a one way, it is open to bikes. 2014-06-06 09.20.29The grade up to Lion’s Gate Bridge is very steep, but it is a short trip and much nicer than the noise and fumes from riding up the causeway alongside the vehicles.2014-06-03 08.39.13

Riding Lion’s Gate is not for the faint hearted. The sidewalks are narrow, pedestrians walk with their backs to you and are often looking at their phones and listening to music, completely disconnected from their surroundings.
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This has lead to accidents and fatalities. Someone we know of was killed on the bridged when he lost control of his bike and ran into one of those steel cables – no padding on them, which means not even slow speeds and a helmet can save you.

The downhill from the top of the bridge to the North Vancouver is straight and narrow. In the winter I dislocated my shoulder when I pedestrian abruptly walked into me and knocked me over – luckily I was going slowly and was able to fall on the sidewalk and not into traffic or over the side of the bridge.

Once in North Vancouver the ride is a mixed bag. There is a brief section on Marine Drive before going down Tatlow to the Spirit Trail, which is one of the best cycle pedestrian paths I have ever had the pleasure to ride on.
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It is separated from cars and wends its way through leafy suburban streets and is wide enough for everyone to have fun. Unfortunately the trail comes to an abrupt end as it throws you back into traffic at Welch and 1st.
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In my early days I used to take the bridge over the railway line at this intersection to connect with the “bikeway”; however, I soon avoided this as it takes longer and it also throws you into the automall – not a good place for a bicycle. The alternative – the one I take – is to stay on 1st, which becomes steadily worse as both it and the “bikeway” converge onto Third Street. Ah yes, Third Street, another example of a lack of urban planning.
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Anyone going east or west on the North Shore has just two primary options, this one, or the Trans Canada Upperlevels Freeway. Needles to say this stretch of road is always jammed with SUVs, trucks, and cars, while pedestrians, skateboarders, cyclists, and poles are forced to share a one metre wide sidewalk and avoid certain death by falling into traffic.

The horrid section of Third Street is thankfully only 3 blocks long, coming to an end at Forbes, where bikes and pedestrians are given the short end of the stick at the poorly designed intersection.

The last few blocks to the office take me through a small successful area of development at Lower Lonsdale, made up of mostly medium density and narrow leafy streets. One still needs to be alert riding here, as North Shore drivers are not known for their respect of pedestrians or cyclists, nor for their patience – certainly a result of the evolution of most of North and West Vancouver into large suburban sprawl that is entirely dependent on cars.

To follow: My Commute – back

(1)http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/vancouver-gridlock-costs-commuters-87-hours-a-year-study-shows/article18958517/
(2)http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/08/13/concentration-media-ownership-canada_n_1773117.html
(3) https://www.google.ca/maps/@49.3172354,-123.0985767,15z

Zoning: it’s killing Vancouver

5 Aug

Vancouver has a complex set of zoning measures, a legacy of zoning rules that shaped the cities of North America during the time of the industrial revolution, a period of rapid growth and social instability.

Zoning was originally implemented to keep crowds, noise, and industry separate from single family homes; to ensure the continuity of urban spaces by obliging developers to follow the guidelines of an established community plan. These plans were a crucial step forward during the industrial 19th and 20th centuries, a period of rapid growth, disease, and conflict (1).

Nowadays we live in a world of declining employment and stagnant wages, land is expensive, automobiles are pricey, and public transit is costly. The risk of pandemics and global conflict is reduced – no one of sound mind wants to send the civilized world back to 1917. So why then is the largest chunk of land in Vancouver reserved for the automobile and large single family homes? Between parking lots, boulevards, streets, and avenues, it is estimated that some 40% percent of the city if dedicated to cars, and this does not include the actually roadway, just the curbside parking (2). Even more astounding is this number also does not include the single family homes themselves!

A study of the zoning map of the City of Vancouver is a visual statement of the presence of the automobile and the single family home (3). Apart from the CBD there is no other high density housing in the city. Medium density and mixed use is limited to a few yellow blobs on the map. So why is it that the city of Vancouver has so much of its urban space zoned for single family homes?

Vancouver Zoning Map

The answer to this is pushback. Many of those who are already fortunate enough to live and own in Vancouver constantly push against any effort to modify zoning across the city – think NIMBY or BANANA. The attitude of homeowners is to “keep it the same”, totally nonsensical given the demographic wave the city is experiencing. It is ludicrous that 30 and 40 year old professionals cannot afford to buy anything anywhere near where they work or where their baby boomer parents live. It is absurd that the average Vancouverite is forced to drive to a supermarket for their groceries, rather than be able to walk to a corner store. It is just as ridiculous that because of existing zoning the only place one can drink a coffee, eat a croissant, or sip a glass of wine is on a noisy thoroughfare, and not at a quite street side café near one’s home. Yet as long as pushback continues, it will be business as usual.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoning_in_the_United_States

(2) http://daily.sightline.org/2013/08/08/park-place/

(3) http://vancouver.ca/files/cov/Zoning-Map-Vancouver.pdf

Kitsilano

5 Aug

Why do I write? To me the answer is simple, it is the only way to leave something behind. Writing is time consuming, frustrating, slow, and often leads nowhere; it is for this very reason that most people don’t bother to do it, they instead spend their time lining up floating strawberries on their “smart”phone.

Yesterday I was pleasantly surprised by an email I received from City Council in North Vancouver. It appears the long awaited extension of the Spirit Trail is going ahead, which means my cycling run from Lions Gate Bridge to our offices should be, apart from one hideously large black dog, a significantly safer experience. Perhaps finally I will be able to escape the automobiledom so engrained in the culture of the North Shore. I’ve always found it ironic how “lifestyle”, “health”, “fitness” are so vaunted as reasons for living on the North Shore, when in fact the reality is a stark contrast, moreso a distopic suburb plastered onto the side of a gaint mountain. Yes disturbia – suburban belts of increasing joblessness and idleness, cut off from the centres by high gas prices, expensive cars, and long neglected public transport infranstructure – this is the future that awaits swaths of North America.

I write this just as I hear the mechanic closing the doors to his shop for the weekend.

I’m in love with Kitsilano.
Small streets, trees, neighbours, sounds of children instead of engines, sidewalks, rooftop decks and streetside gardens.
The springtime fragrance of magnolias and the lofty sounds of a musical instrument from someone’s converted garage.
Wafts of roasted coffee beans and freshly baked chocolate chip pecan cookies drifting from an open window.
A gentle aroma of chlorine and seaside air, with splashes of water droplets from swimmers kicking across Kitsilano Pool.
Paradise

I’m learning Flamenco guitar. I’m not very good at it; however, I hope that within two or three years I can advance from novice to tolerable, or maybe even great. The experience is so different from Bossa Nova. How is that one instrument can produce such distinctly different sounds, but both so sensual and beautiful to the ear. Like drops of honey and butter on a freshly toasted bagel. Salivating

On a road to nowhere: regional comprehensive transit stuck in traffic.

4 Aug

“Bike to Work Week”, how about just calling it “Bike to Work”? It borders on the absurd the amount of public awareness pushed during bike week, asking motorists to share the road with bicycles. What about the other 51 weeks? Does this mean next week motorists can stop sharing the road again? Indeed how is it even possible for a stressed out motorist looking at their phone to ever be able to share the road with anyone else?

Gripes aside, “Bike to Work Week” is a path in the right direction; however, the real battle is for a “third way” of entirely separated independent cycling infrastructure, integrated into a comprehensive regional transit initiative. Forgetting the fluff, this requires serious political leadership from senior levels of government, and not small cobbled together networks assembled by budget strapped city level governments.

Unfortunately there is little evidence of any initiatives from senior government. The premier of British Columbia is in perpetual campaign mode, having grinded long term transit work to a halt in the Lower Mainland, with the uncertainty of a transit referendum she has imposed, but which she refuses to take a stand on. Why is it that comprehensive transit has to go through a regional referendum, but a 3 billion dollar bridge over the Fraser River can pass without a single public consultation. If one is to be consistent, should the bridge not be part of this regional transit referendum? If there is no need for a referendum on the bridge, then why is there a need for a referendum on regional transit? In fact why is there a need for a referendum at all? After all, the Liberals won a clear mandate in the last election, so why not get on with the business of governing? Unfortunately the Premier and the BC Liberal Government seem to have lost the meaning of government. To govern is to lead, which means taking a stand that may not always win votes or assure reelection. Yet the blame does not entirely rest on the shoulders of the BC Liberals, it also falls on the opposition who fail to offer a viable alternative to the current governing party.

The federal government is not much better. Despite governing in a time with the lowest interests rates in history, the Federal Government has illogically taken to cutting taxes and spending, and consequently miss out on an opportunity to finance the modernization of the country’s urban infrastructure at near zero interest rates. The federal government should be taking the initiative to push more funding to local governments to pay for comprehensive transit infrastructure. Infrastructure to get people off highways and out of cars, and onto transit and bicycles. It seems not a day goes by without yet another story of a traffic jam, a cyclist or pedestrian hit by a motorist, a delayed overcrowded bus or trolley car service. Canadians spend too much time sitting in traffic and this is only going to get worse before it gets better. Canada is failing in a global economy where the difference between winners and losers is increasingly dependent on high quality infrastructure. The time is now for leadership from senior government, leadership willing to take risks to build a new society that breaks with the old.

In Vancouver, hats of to the city government for getting  “Bike to Work Week” moving, but sadly the effort is futile without getting the Provincial and the Federal levels of government on board. Vancouver and other cities in Canada will remain stuck in traffic on a road to nowhere, as long as there is no comprehensive transit plan with real dollars. An intolerable situation for a country where over 80% of the population lives in cities.

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http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/toronto/torys-transit-plan-rejects-drl-lrt-in-favour-of-surface-rail/article18864900/
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/liberals-to-push-ahead-with-legislation-for-vancouver-area-transit-referendum/article16469783/
http://rabble.ca/news/2012/11/harper-clashes-transit-climate-crisis-deepends