Nightlife is the key to safer Surrey streets at night [POLL]

Surrey transit

Last weekend, I found myself reading a column written by local issues blogger Laila Yuile about her experience with a late night Surrey bus (Surrey transit after dark reveals ‘Boulevard of broken dreams’…( and they wonder why more people don’t take transit), something I’m sure can be shared by a number of people who live in the City of Surrey.

I know personally, as well, that being on the bus in Surrey at night can be a scary and unattractive experience. On the #320 not less than one year ago, I sharing the ride with a loud, bickering man who had his hand hidden inside his jacket pocket, as if to conceal a weapon of some sort (a gun or a knife). I found myself subconsciously moving away and to the back of the bus for the sake of my own safety.

Last night, I took the #321 bus from Surrey Central Station down King George Boulevard on my way home from a meeting with friends in Kitsilano.
It isn’t pretty, my friends.. if you’ve a weak stomach, turn away now – this is your only warning.

Now, transit in Surrey late at night is not that good. The three main routes out of Surrey Central (320, 321, 502) which get FTN (frequent transit network) service levels during the day-time, revert to 30 minute frequencies later at night. I usually find myself arranging for alternate transportation if I’m heading home from the SkyTrain or anywhere in Surrey late at night, although the introduction of the 96 B-Line in September may change that (the 96 will run a full 7.5 minute frequency to approximately 10:30 on all nights, and with 15 minute frequencies thereafter).

I don’t, however, think that the unsafe conditions of Surrey streets and transit late at night should be attributed not exclusively to our low late night transit service levels. It’s important to note that Surrey is not the only place in Metro Vancouver where transit services revert to half hour frequencies late at nights. This happens throughout the freqeunt transit network. On one of the region’s busiest bus routes outside of Vancouver, the #106 (the 106 services the busy Kingsway corridor in Burnaby and Edmonds Town Centre, and 6th St in New West), services run every half hour after 10PM in the same manner as bus routes in Surrey.

One of the problems I’ve always had with Surrey is a lack of any established nightlife. Here in Surrey, we just don’t have a well-lit, active night district just like Vancouver has downtown on Granville Street. It is the lack of this, coupled with the town-centre community model, that results in the entirety of the city (let alone the city centre) becoming what is essentially a dead-zone at night, along with any transit routes traversing major corridors. Crime during the late night is common, and is often reported on the news the next day if there was an incident. No one would dare walk the streets, and anyone who is out so late at night is probably in a car or a cab if not on the bus.

The streets are empty near Gateway Station during the after-hours. Photo: City of Surrey
The streets are empty near Gateway Station during the after-hours. Photo: City of Surrey

There are reasons that this doesn’t happen in Vancouver.

To start with, there’s a well-established and very active nightlife area in downtown on Granville Street, which creates an incentive for the street to always be well-lit at night – something one may notice upon getting off at Granville or City Centre SkyTrain station.

Also, on Vancouver’s numerous high streets and communities, late night activity tends to be abundant enough throughout the city to ensure that there’s activity if you’re on transit late at night. This is because businesses are concentrated on at-grade transit corridors (or high streets) and there’s late night activity to be found from local businesses even as far south as, say, 41st Ave. These businesses are on transit corridors, and so they are well positioned to serve the demands of people coming home from downtown nightlife districts, in addition to random go-to visitors, and so being open late at night is manageable for a few more businesses than usual.

Map from Google of late night establishments in Downtown
Map from Google of late night establishments in Downtown

But, in the City of Surrey, being open late at night seems to be manageable to only one business in this entire city that isn’t a fast-food restaurant or convenience store: the Bubble World in my neighbourhood. Bubble World is really the only business I happen to know in Surrey that is open after midnight, and part of the reason I know this is because it is in my neighbourhood. In Surrey, land use patterns are not the same as they are in Vancouver. There are no high-street corridors where businesses line a major road serviced by transit, and can potentially benefit from that activity. Most commercial development is concentrated in town centres (and not in between them), and so business tends to be very localized outside of the daytime or closed altogether.

A nightlife is simply not well-established for Surrey residents from any part of the city, and so the only large-scale demand for late night public transit is for people who are trying to get home from a SkyTrain station.

The City of Burnaby, by comparison, is also making do with half hour bus services (or worse) away from SkyTrain, but I have always found it to have a much better nightlife and night environment than Surrey does.

The ‘town centres’ in Burnaby are larger, denser, and house more residents; and this creates more localized demand for the sort of nightlife even more prevalent in the denser areas of downtown Vancouver, one that fights the fact that the town centre land-use model is less optimized for night-time business. In the vicinity of Metrotown or Edmonds Town Centres, some areas are actually fairly well-lit and have activity, and I have always felt safer in those areas late at night than I have in Surrey. I have memories from last summer of having a meal at the Cattle Cafe location in Edmonds Town Centre at midnight with some friends, and having absolutely no bad feelings about being there so late at night.

Metrotown at night
Metrotown at night. Photo credit: CC-BY Reg Natarajan

Surrey’s proximity to Vancouver actually does arguably bring a chance that one of those businesses with late night establishments elsewhere in Metro Vancouver opens a late night branch in Surrey. But, at the moment, despite current growth, there really aren’t many incentives for open-at-night activity in Surrey. One can only hope that with the further growth of Surrey City Centre, an established nightlife comes with it.

What do you think?

The Real Reason Children Have Lost the Freedom to Roam

Response to StreetFilms: Children Have Lost the Freedom to Roam

The video above is certainly right that the car-orientation of our society is among the biggest drivers (no pun intended there) in kids’ changing commute patterns. I’m a bit of an urbanist, and I can say that I’m certainly not a fan of how so many communities in this world are being oriented towards the car, as opposed to kids and people.

However, to an extent I disagree with this video in the claim that children have “lost the freedom to roam” solely because of a car-oriented culture, and car-oriented communities. The comments in the video seem to imply that children have lost their freedom to roam simply because of that, or alternatively because their parents do not allow them to walk or bike.

Kids are not unlike adults: they are free actors in a free society (tips hat to Jarrett Walker), and they have the right to choose what seems best for them (with the assistance of parents). There may be reasons that children are actually choosing to be driven to school in the morning out of lack of choice, not because the society around them is car-oriented. There may also be reasons that parents are choosing schools further away from home for their children.

I happen to know that both are happening in my community. And, it’s not because of any specific development and land-use orientation towards the car.

The effects of school schedules and overcrowded school buildings

At the North Surrey Secondary school here in Surrey, too many students and an overcrowded school building have forced the school to adopt an awkward five-block schedule [CLICK HERE]. NSSS staggers students across the 5 blocks, so that older students study for the first four and younger ones for the last four (or combinations with study blocks). I’ve noted this before in my newsletters several times as one of the problems of lack of education funding in not just this city, but also this province (B.C. has the worst student-to-educator ratio in Canada 16.8:1, vs. a national 13.8:1 average – from the BCTF and Statistics Canada)

North Surrey Secondary's 5 block schedule
North Surrey Secondary’s 5 block schedule

I have one friend who goes to North Surrey Secondary, and lives just under 1 mile away, and is driven to school. In her case in particular, in the morning, she asks (and has arranged) to be driven to her school with her brother. But, in the afternoon, they have no problem making the 20 minute walk back to their home.

As with 11th and 12th grade students, as a result of the awkward 5-block schedule the school has been forced to adopt, her and her brother are expected to be at school and in class by 7:55AM – 45 minutes earlier than is expected at most other high schools in the city. That already means, in spite of being driven, waking up very early in the morning to go through preparation.

Transit options aren’t much better; the 335 bus route runs only every 20 minutes in the morning, meaning a missed bus means being late to class, and a trip that would take longer than simply walking. However, even if the buses ran frequently enough to be reliable, relying on transit would add an additional monthly cost of $104 ($52 per student) – not exactly an encouraging prospect for many parents who have cars for their own purposes, and who might not pay much to drive their kids to school in the morning (and possibly from in the afternoon) – especially if it happens on the way to work.

Some people have the luck of parents who will wake up earlier and cook in the morning to prepare food and other daily necessities. But, other students might be like how you see Umi-chan in the opening scenes of STUDIO GHIBLI’s From Up on Poppy Hill. These students, girls or guys, might have to cook for themselves, in addition to cleaning up and doing other errands in the morning to start the day. These errands can take a long time.

This reality seems to reflect itself in many online polls of students. In this poll on Discovery Girls [LINK] (you need to answer in order to see the results), 57% of respondants take 30 minutes or longer to get ready in the morning. This second poll on Smart Girls [LINK] has similar results: 30% of girls take at least an hour to get ready in the morning. 63% take 30 minutes or longer.

Image of the poll on smart girls. 63% of respondents require 30 minutes or longer to get ready in the morning.
Image of the poll on smart girls. 63% of respondents require 30 minutes or longer to get ready in the morning.
For the people who take over an hour, they may have to wake up as early as 6:20-6:30 in the morning in order to meet the 7:55AM schedule, considering the time of commute.

It’s been studied that adolescents naturally tend to be “night owls” – they prefer to be awake in the later night hours and awaken later in the day. This is because of hormones, and it happens with every teenager. Early wake-up schedules simply do not sit in well with teenagers.

This is why, in my belief, a lot of them will value those extra 20-30 minutes in the morning they can sleep in addition to being in the comfort of a car in the morning on the way to school – sheltered from rain, storm, wind, and other potential sources of discomfort.

The effects of student-educator ratio

Students from across Metro Vancouver protest overcrowded classrooms at a rally on March 2, 2012
Students from across Metro Vancouver protest overcrowded classrooms at a rally on March 2, 2012 [CLICK HERE to learn more about this]
The other issue in my community that I pointed out earlier is student-educator ratio. Here in British Columbia, we have the worst in the country. We are far above the national average. That is a factor that can make parents here very concerned about the education their students receive.

Why? Higher student-educator ratios have impacts on the education students receive. Lower student-educator ratios mean better education.

As I mentioned earlier, people are free actors in a free society. They are free to make the decisions they want in order to get the best. Parents are free to choose to send their children to a different school that may offer a lower student-educator ratio or an otherwise statistically better education, even if it’s further from home and, perhaps, driving to school is required. This, I believe, is one of the big contributors to why many students are being driven to school.

I know several students who have been moved to different high schools by their parents in order to obtain a better education. These actions do have results. One of those people I know, in particular, helped start the Can You Contain It! Campaign with Metro Vancouver. She’s a very active environmentalist and lifestyle change activist, with a very big record of community involvement through selfless acts of service.

A solution?

In my view, the solution to both of the problems is simply to ensure that children have a better education and a good learning environment – we must make sure that there are enough teachers for students so that they can get a better education closer to home, and big enough school buildings so that no schools have to adopt awkward schedules that force students to come very early.

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Encouraging active commutes to school

That still leaves the issue: What can we do about schools in car-oriented communities? I do believe that car-orientation plays some part in why students are driven to school, but I also believe that the solution isn’t difficult.

I believe that encouraging students to cycle (and parents to allow their kids to) is the solution to the problem, as is ensuring there is bike-friendly infrastructure (although in car-oriented communities, lower traffic volume on low-density residential streets can actually permit very safe cycling even without dedicated bike infrastructure like bike lanes). Cycling is something I took on for commuting in my final years of high school, and in my view it often provides a perfect balance between an active commute and a reasonable travel time to school in the morning.

How to encourage cycling? Not difficult. Urban and suburban areas should adopt programs like TransLink’s Travel Smart (a program by our metropolitan transit agency that encourages people to commute sustainably) and introduce them to schools. I know for one that Travel Smart has had much success in encouraging active commuting to schools in my city through incentives.

A group of kids cycling in Japan
A group of kids cycling in Japan. Photo: Wikimedia Commons – C.K. Tse

DEBUNKING MYTHS: “LRT will bring mid-rises, SkyTrain will bring towers”

From Daryl Dela Cruz, Better Surrey Rapid Transit Campaign Director

Also posted on Better Surrey Rapid Transit

Why does the City of Surrey have a Mayor that seems to have no idea of what she can do as mayor? Maybe I should be Mayor, because I apparently know more than she does about how cities can control land use.

A recent Vancouver Sun issue mentioned a comment by her on one of the reasons she is in support of Light Rail Transit over SkyTrain in Surrey. This is the comment:

Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts, who is pushing for light rail transit in her city, said she doesn’t expect to see the same problems in Surrey as Coquitlam or Burnaby, mainly because at-grade rail won’t bring the same densification pressures. Also, the corridors designated for the proposed light rail lines are already a mix of high density residential and commercial.

“We will densify but we’re not going to have to tear homes down,” she said. “Where we’ve got our corridors, we have enough space to implement at-grade rail.”

She said that’s one reason Surrey wants at-grade light rail rather than the elevated SkyTrain technology. “We wouldn’t have to get rid of housing.”

From the Vancouver Sun – In Metro Vancouver, densification is the price paid for transit [LINK]

Popular blogger Paul Hillsdon said this too, in a recent article he posted on Civic Surrey.

My point has been that it is a question of how much density a community is willing to have. LRT will bring mid-rises, while SkyTrain is almost guaranteed to bring towers.

From Civic Surrey [LINK]

This myth has to be ended. There seems to be a common (correction: FAR too common) consensus that “LRT will bring mid-rises, while SkyTrain is almost guaranteed to bring towers.” This is completely false. What land use is attracted to rapid transit and then actually built should have nothing to do with what mode-type of rapid transit is built, because everything can be restricted by the city’s land use policies. If an extension of SkyTrain in Surrey creates a push for densification (i.e. developers are encouraged to build skyscrapers all along the line and launch rezoning applications to see if the city will allow it), the City of Surrey does not have to approve these proposals and can restrict the maximum density of zoning along the line as it pleases.

For example: while SkyTrain has the potential to attract towers, SkyTrain also has the potential to attract mid-rise development if that is what the city wants, and restrictions and control of developer applications by City Council can help ensure that mid-rise developments are what is built around SkyTrain stations. The City of Richmond has been doing a great job at formulating an innovative land use plan around downtown Richmond and its Canada Line Stations that controls development proposals to ensure that certain stations create distinct districts around each one of them (i.e. commercial districts oriented around a certain culture or aura).

The Canada Line in Richmond integrates exceptionally well with the urban environment.
An example of a Canada Line integration plan

There’s a reason that many stations on the current SkyTrain system such as 29th Avenue, Nanaimo Station, and Lake City Way continue to be surrounded by low-density developments. The city which the SkyTrain line is passing through has not made the necessary modifications to land use zoning policies in these areas – and while better opportunities with lower developer risk for transit-oriented development still exist around many SkyTrain Stations and high-density areas (such as Surrey City Centre itself), developers have seen no need to push for any rezoning applications at these locations because not only will they face the cost, but they may face opposition from the property owners they will displace.

In my opinion, Mayor Watts is just saying this in desperation, because she is running out of legitimate reasons to advocate for Light Rail. I have been debunking everything. I’m the challenger to her proposal that, as she pointed out back in her April 2011 State of the City speech, did not exist. Tonight or tomorrow, I’m going to be releasing a huge response to the 536-page Surrey Rapid Transit Study final analysis that should put a nail in the coffin for Light Rail Transit as a feasible solution in any way for the City of Surrey.

Mayor Watts, even Paul Hillsdon has changed his mind and is willing to endorse SkyTrain. It’s about time that you do the same.