Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Rapid Transit: PHASE II

That sounds so cool and futuristic: Rapid Transit: Phase II. I envision a new glistening bullet train speeding over top of the city as a sultry female voice announces "Next stop, Osborne Station".

In reality we're getting ordinary buses that have their own right-of way and a computerized male voice that butchers half the street names. And it's not "Phase II", it's "Stage 2". 

I'll take it.

As most Winnipeggers who give a damn are aware, there has been some debate about how to route Stage 2: go straight down the CN line adjacent to Pembina Highway, or dogleg off to the west to take advantage of the transit-oriented development (TOD if you like acronyms) opportunities afforded by the vacant Parker Lands. A study was done to provide a recommendation on the matter. It can be found here:

I am going to get right to it: I don't like the recommendation. The study recommends the crooked option 1B, versus the straight option 2.

The primary reasons for this recommendation, given on page 65 of the report, are:
"Based on transit service design, transfer of ridership, flexibility of the system, walking distance to the stations, and development density Concepts 1A and 1B are seen as being more suited to BRT while Concept 2 is seen as being more suited to LRT."
"The Concept 1B alignment allows for the U of M to access the rapid transit system via multiple access points,along with alternate extensions of additional phases of rapid transit to other areas of southwest Winnipeg, including Linden Woods, Seasons of Tuxedo, Whyte Ridge, Kenaston Common and Waverley West."
To this second point: the only access point for additional phases of rapid transit that Option 2 precludes is Hurst Way. Where is Hurst Way? Exactly. Hurst Way is that little bit of road that you get when you extend Wilkes Ave. across Waverly. It certainly does not spring to mind as a critical Rapid Transit access point.

Remember, the point of this thing is to get people from downtown to the UofM and places in between. It's not to get people from Linden Woods to the UofM. That would be pointless. They won't use it anyhow.

The earlier point is explained in more detail on pages 35-37 of the study, which concludes with this statement:
"Although BRT technology will work well for the Concept 2 alignment, the more direct route and the current development density along the Letellier subdivision of Concept 2 is higher than along the Manitoba Hydro Corridor and consequently more passengers are within walking distance of the stations. As more opportunities for denser re-development occur along Pembina Highway, the Concept 2 alignment is better suited to LRT technology than the Concept 1 alignments."
Please read that carefully one more time.

Although BRT will work well with Concept 2, it is straighter and more passengers are within walking distance. ... This is the argument against Concept 2.

You see: because the straight line is better for LRT, the other option must be better for BRT because one single option cannot be better for both. The rules just don't allow for that.

In reality the things that make Option 2 better for LRT are the things that make it better for any kind of transit: it goes through a more densely populated area and is within walking distance of far more people. Option 1B divides an industrial park and low-density residential, yet somehow the study spins that into a plus for the dog legged route.

There are other arguments made in favour of 1B in the study, including transit-oriented development (TOD), primarily in the Gen Equities-owned Parker Lands. The assumption seems to be that rapid transit is a necessary condition for development to occur, because the study projects the incremental increase in property tax revenue from developing the Parker Lands to "medium-density" and allocates that as a benefit of the 1B corridor.

I think this is flawed. I don't happen to think that an area wedged between a rail line, a busy thoroughfare and a low-density residential neighbouhood is a likely place for TOD. I think TOD is more likely to occur in walkable areas of town where a person does not necessarily need a car.

If development does occur in the Parker Lands area, I don't think transit should be given all the credit. Development could occur there in any case. In fact, the study states that the owner of the Parker lands is "Indifferent to Letellier or Manitoba Hydro ROW alignment." (p.85)

Another argument in favour of 1B is that there are fewer road crossings than Option 2. This is true, but there are ways to mitigate that. For example, most of the gated intersections (Xs in the diagram below) could be closed off.

You would want to maintain a crossing at Windermere Ave (second X from the right) and maybe one other one, but all of those access points to Pembina Highway are not needed. In fact they are kind of dangerous. I got into a pretty bad accident once with a minivan trying to cross Pembina at one of those uncontrolled intersections.

There may also be ways to speed transit along this stretch through technology: priority signals for the transit way and synchronization for example.

I could go on because there is more to say about this, but I'm running out of steam. I encourage you to read Christopher Leo's Oops, forgot the environmental assessment for other points about the project. Also listen to the discussion on Winnipeg Internet Pundits.

While at this point I would be happy just to see any kind of rapid transit line built, I think it should be built with current needs foremost in mind. The chosen route trades off usefulness for the questionable potential of transit-oriented development. It's a gamble, and not a wise one in my view.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

People in glass houses should buy small furniture

"A glass beacon rises above the city, shimmering windows lighting up the night. A sleek, distinctive shape redefines the skyline."

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights? No. Glasshouse Skylofts.

Glasshouse is part of Longboat's Centrepoint development in downtown Winnipeg. It's a pretty exciting development for a few reasons:

1) It's revitalizing a small part of Portage Avenue
2) It's adding to Winnipeg's skyline. That's always nice to see.
3) It's bringing office jobs downtown, with the relocation of the sizable Stantec offices from the 'burbs to the corner of Portage and Hargrave.
4) It's adding residential dwelings to downtown, something that everybody (except the Friends of Upper Fort Garry, but let's not go there) agree is of paramount importance.

Site of future Glasshouse condos

It is this last point that I'm rambling about today. While I'm optimistic about new residential units being built, I wonder about the appeal of units like these that are small in size, but not so small in price. the loft-style units range in size from 409 to 783 square feet, and in price from $170,000 to $310,000. Add another $42,000 for parking and $3,500 for a storage locker and a $1500 "floor premium", and you're paying upwards of $357,000 for a condo under 800 square feet. I guess that's good option if you're not a fan of 1500 square foot bungalows in River Heights.

In some larger cities it takes forever to get downtown and parking is crazy-expensive when you get there. It makes more sense for young and single office workers to establish themselves downtown. This drives demand for mid-to-high priced loft condos. I'm just not sure that demand exists in Winnipeg yet.

The crazy thing is, some of the modest square footages in the Glasshouse condos even exaggerate the useful space. The floor plans will not be released until the the preview event in a couple of weeks, but waiting is for suckers so let's check them out now...

a1: 409 sq.ft. $170,000

I think this is one of the better designs, to be honest with you. The whole space is useful, and you have a separate bedroom with nice big windows looking out on the city. I could live like this ... if I had less stuff.

Compare this to the next size up...

a2: 469 sq.ft. $180,000

This bachelor pad has a wide open bedroom and a ton of wasted space for a condo this size. The whole entrance corridor is not good for much of anything, except perhaps a bench or a bookshelf. If you upgrade with the extra privacy wall for the bedroom, you end up with a 40' corridor just to get from the door to the dining room! That's 160 sq ft of precious space being underutilized. In reality this living space is closer to 300 sq.ft. You do get a balcony though.

(Also for comparison, check out these apartments that were originally designed as shipping container housing. H/T: West End Dumplings)

Moving on ...

a3: 515 sq.ft. $195,000
a4: 551 sq.ft. $205,000

The smaller and cheaper a3 has a little more living space. It gives up the entrance lobby for a slightly deeper living/dining room. Otherwise, very similar except a4 faces south and a3 faces north, so maybe your choice depends on whether you want to look at poor people or rich people when relaxing on your balcony.

There isn't really anything remarkable about the mid range condo units, so let's skip ahead to the high end. This is what 300 Grand gets you:

c2: 758 sq.ft. $295,000

c3: 783 sq.ft. $310,000

With these sweet Portage Avenue lofts, you get an ensuit bathroom and two bedrooms. Both have exposed steel columns that you have to work around when you're furnishing your pad. You could call those an annoyance, but I call it character.

Once again, I prefer the smaller and cheaper unit, for the simple fact that there is more practical living space. The $310k unit has a large vestibule, but the living/dining space is 58 sq ft smaller than the less expensive unit. The less expensive unit also has a wall in the living room where you can park a TV or bookshelf. In the $310k unit you have no choice but to block windows with your giant flat screen TV because there is virtually no wall space.

None of these are good condos for people who cook. Even the top end unit has a kitchenette that you might find in a Ramada hotel suite in Toledo. If you have a microwave and a coffee maker, you're pretty much out of counter space.

I think there is going to be some sticker shock when people see these places. For comparison, the Sky Waterfront condos started at a relatively spacious 809 sq.ft. for as little as $235,000, and I would rather live on the waterfront than on Portage Avenue, but maybe that's just me.

There are a few perks, including a small gym and an outdoor roof-top patio for the use of the residents. Maybe some people will be dazzled by the "industrial chic" design of concrete construction, big windows, and exposed duct work. I don't know ...

Has the compact downtown condo market heated up so much that people will be willing to dump $300,000 on a 640 sq.ft condo with a parking space? Is this what it takes to make a condo project profitable in downtown Winnipeg without big government subsidies? If so, I am pessimistic about achieving that critical mass of downtown residents that we need to create a vibrant sustainable community that we all want. I hope the market is there, but I don't know that it is.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

In support of three year contracts

Once again I feel alone in the world, unable to relate to others. What I think makes perfect sense is an evil practice that must be abolished to everybody else.

This time I'm talking about cell phone contracts. First, let me tell you how I shop for a cell phone. I walk into a store and I say: "what is the best phone you can give me for free?" If I agree to sign a 3 year contract I can get a better phone than if I sign a 1 or 2 year contract, so I lock in for 3 years and walk out with a pretty decent phone. I use that phone for 5 years or so, then I do it over again.

I'm not one of those people who suffers debilitating embarrassment and anxiety if my technology is more than 6 months old. I have been using my decent - and FREE - LG Android phone for a year and a half now. I am half way through my contract, and I have no real desire to upgrade the phone or bolt to a different carrier.

Of course, the phone is not really free. I pay for it each month. Part of my monthly contract fee goes towards covering the cost of the hardware that I'm using. If I lock in to a 3 year contract then my service provider can count on 36 months of fees and can therefore give me my hardware for less, or no, money. At the same time, if I break my contract I should pay a fine because I haven't finished paying for my phone.

Perhaps the contract termination fees are too high. Maybe more clarity is needed in cell phone contracts. Maybe service providers should provide unlocked phones and scale back obscene roaming charges and keep records of cell phone serial numbers to stop thefts and black market sales of iPhones.

I am not ruling out that there may be room for improved regulation in the cell phone industry, but to remove three year contracts is to remove choice. You would think that consumer groups would be advocates for more choice, but not in this industry.
Representatives of three consumer groups urged the national telecom regulator (CRTC) to do away with three-year terms in favour of capping contracts at two years.
"Consumers are sick of termination penalties designed to keep them locked into long-term contracts," said John Lawford of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre.
I have a bit of advice for consumers who don't like 3 year contracts: DON'T FUCKING SIGN A THREE YEAR CONTRACT!

"Oh, but the phones are soo expensive with a 2 year contract" whine the pale skinny-legged consumers without looking up from their phones because they're busy tweeting what stupid badge they unlocked on Fourfuckingsquare. Well you know what? The phones are expensive because you haven't shown enough of a commitment to the service provider to warrant a heavily subsidized phone.

That's simple market arithmetic. You get a cheaper phone with a longer contract, which happens to be perfect for people like me. But the cheap phones are dependent on people honouring their contracts.

"Honouring their contracts? Whaaaa?" said the skinny-legged consumer as she was uploading a 6 second Vine video of her cat yawning. Yes, contracts. Ask your Dad. He'll tell you.

The norm in some countries is that consumers pay full price for their phone -- say $600 or so -- and switch plans and providers at will. For some people this would be better. We are actually lucky in Canada in a way, because we have the option of getting a subsidized phone with longer term contracts. I stress "option" because nobody is forcing anybody to sign up for three years.

Our contract fees may still be high, but part of that is due to the high cost of covering our low-density but second largest country in the world with infrastructure. And we may still have less choice than we should have, but ultimately a lot of the problems that plague our industry could be solved with more competition instead of more regulation. This includes opening up our market to more foreign-owned service providers like Wind Mobile.

What we should not do is regulate an industry to cater to a specific class of consumer that signs long term contracts without knowing what those contracts are all about

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

"There's so much duplication"

I was sitting in a waiting room recently, and struck up a conversation with the person sitting beside me. Just small talk at first ... "so, where do you work?"

"Manitoba Mental Health"

I don't recall the exact name of the organization, but it was something like that. Nor do I recall the name of the lady with whom I was speaking, and even if I did I would not tell you because I do not want to get her in trouble. In any case, her answer interested me because I knew nothing of this organization. So I asked her: "What does this organization do?"

"We provide support, counseling, assistance finding employment and that sort of thing. There is so much duplication."


"There is so much duplication. You wouldn't believe how many organizations do the same thing we do."

She just threw that out there, completely unsolicited. "There is so much duplication." That she would think to include that statement in casual conversation about her place of work tells me that it's really a significant factor. Perhaps something that frustrates her or limits her sense of accomplishment at work.

That led to a conversation about why there is so much duplication. The consensus was that there are certain areas that, for reasons of optics, are immune to cutbacks. Like police services at the municipal level, health services at the provincial level are nigh impossible to cut. They are, however, extremely easy to increase. Announcing a new program for mental health services or anything else is good PR. Thus, with new programs being added all the time and no old programs getting cut, duplication arises.

This squares with something I heard from a friend who used to work in the Finance department on Broadway. He said that prior to any budget, proposals would be made to trim one thing or another in the area of health care and they were all systematically rejected. This was something that my friend found frustrating and limited his sense of accomplishment at work.

What is stopping the current NDP administration from cutting some of these programs? In theory, the NDP should be able to trim some things without fear the opposition PCs will criticize them for it. The PCs ought to understand the necessity of cutting duplication, and are not really in a position to criticize modest health care cuts after their last experience in power.

The problem (I think) is that the NDP hammered the PCs relentlessly in previous elections for health care cuts, and it worked too well. This is their biggest weapon: the PCs are the party of cutting health care and the NDP are not. They do not want to lose that advantage. They don't want the PCs to be able to say "you cut health care too" the next time the NDP attacks the PCs in an election campaign.


In a Twitter discussion today, reporter Dan Lett asked pundit Luc Lewandoski to explain "What part of health and education is non-core?" It's not really a fair question. Mental health services are a "core" service, for example, but that doesn't mean it can't safely be trimmed or consolidated without impacting the final product.

Any suggestion that budgets should be trimmed are immediately countered by a government MLA with simplistic arguments about "core" services being cut, as if there is no grey area. The fact is that there is probably a great deal of room for budget trimming, but you need to be familiar with the organizations to know what those are.

I never knew anything about mental health services until recently -- I don't use mental health services because I still cling to the belief that I'm mentally stable and do not require urgent medical attention -- but it seems everybody has some kind of story about how a government agency or department is wasting time or money. All of this knowledge needs to be harnessed, and the government needs to be fearless in attacking these areas of waste and excess if it ever hopes to get its spending under control.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Phil Sheegl: The right man for the job

Time and again City of Winnipeg CAO Phil Sheegl proves to us that he's the right man for the job.

Some people mistake his genius for something else, but geniuses are often misunderstood. Phil is very much misunderstood.

The latest evidence of this came when it was recently made known that Phil was using a loading zone at city hall to park his Benz. The reaction was not positive, but only because people got distracted by the whole "authorized vehicles only" thing and missed the bigger picture. It is all explained here:

Sheegl decided to use the space full-time following the Civic Centre Parkade closure, as a way to minimize the number of parking spots the city had to find elsewhere.
If most people lost their parking spot, they would look for another parking spot. In fact, that's what everyone else at city hall did, often parking a several minute walk away. Not Phil.

Phil realized the inefficiency of spending time looking for another parking spot, not to mention the wasted time, effort and money of parking in a parkade a few blocks away. It is so much more efficient to park right at City Hall at a loading dock, and efficiency is what Phil is all about. It courses through his veins and pulses through his neurons.

Phil Sheegl is simply incapable of making inefficient choices. That is why he parks in the loading dock and we should be thankful because those are exactly the qualities we need at City Hall ... especially at a time when the infrastructure deficit is growing and tax increases are straining us all. Maybe the way one person parks will not make a big difference, but that's not the point. The point is that Phil's special parking spot is indicative of his ability to think outside the box and find solutions that save time and money, and I for one wouldn't have it any other way.

Plus ... though one car may not make a difference, if we all parked where ever the hell we wanted, think about how much efficient this city would be.

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