Vancouver’s transit referendum


This Monday marks the start date of the Vancouver transit referendum. While I no longer live in Vancouver, my Facebook feed has been increasing populated by opinions on this matter. So I want to take a break from my normal SF themed topics and talk about this. Since if I was in Vancouver, I would be all over it. This is the yes/no referendum question:

“Do you support a one half percentage point (0.5%) increase to the Provincial Sales Tax in Metro Vancouver, dedicated to the Mayors’ Transportation and Transit Plan, with independent audits and public reporting?”

You can find more information about the referendum and the plan here http://www.movinginalivableregion.ca/library/the-referendum/.
To start I’ve read a lot of articles from both sides and their arguments and I haven’t really seen anyone discussing the plan. To me this means, the plan is a good one and not something of high contention. This makes sense to me, the plan involves a lot of improvements across all regions for all modes of transportation. Vancouver has always been excellent in Urban Planning and pretty much everything on this list has been on translink backlog for a while because people want it. The real debate is not if the plan is a good one, but if we should be taxed this way for it. This is where it gets interesting.

Before we get into the arguments for either side, I think it’s important to understand how we got into this situation. Basically Translink has been struggling to find new ways of funding for almost as long as I known. It has increased street parking rates, property taxes, gas taxes, and fare rates. All of which have been barely keeping up with demand for improvements. With each bit of new capital you find regions fighting for their share of the pie to be invested in their community. Regardless of this in the last 10 years Translink has done many improvements, to roads, bicycle infrastructure and transit including the Canada line and Evergreen line. Which if you live in any other North American city, you can appreciate the progress. However all this has increased the daily operating costs and Translink is slowly digging it’s own hole. So the Provincial government decides to step in and induce a referendum for a 0.5% sales tax. Sounds like a good idea, but you quickly realize there was no referendum for the Port Mann bridge or the Massey tunnel improvements. Why not? what’s special about this case? Keep in mind a referendum for something like this is quite rare in Canada.  It why we elect representatives, so that they make the hard trade off budget decision and prioritize the needs for the greater good. But transit is obviously not a high priority for them and instead of reallocating their budget, they instead decide to spend 5-6 Million in tax payer dollars to fund a referendum. Effectively pushing the decision to the voter, while not having to reallocate fund and absolving them of responsibility. All I can say to this, is it sucks! but it is the unfortunate situation we are into forced by the Provincial government. So let’s discuss the issues.

Disclaimer, I am in the yes camp.

So the main arguments from the ‘No’ side is the mismanagement of Translink and the high ceo pay. Regarding mismanagement, I outright disagree I think Translink is actually well managed if you exclude the compass card/fare gate roll out. To some that may be a big deal but in reality sometimes your going to mess up. Maybe I am being to easy on them, but I’ve seen Vancouver do more than many North American cities. Plus for me I was never on board with that program to begin with and I actually blame the Provincial government for forcing it more than Translink.

As for CEO pay, I don’t mind paying more for a good CEO if it’s worth it. The problem is Translink’s intern CEO decision is really a disaster. There is no arguing that. Is that an argument for making a ‘no’ vote? Maybe but to me it’s orthogonal argument. The vote is not going to CEO pay, it’s going to a specific list of improvements, with an audit, yes or no will not change that, if there was a better CEO in place would that change your mind. If so maybe you should rethink why.

Next to the ‘yes’ camp. The yes camp has a lot of argument that are general benefits of transit, faster travel times, better quality of life, health benefits, less pollution, but not much about why you should be paying for it. The sad truth to the answer is because we can’t afford the alternative, whatever that may be. The fact is a ‘no’ vote will keep the status quo for at least 1-2 years until if we are lucky something better comes along, maybe a provincial leadership change that will change translink funding or maybe not. That is pretty much the gamble the people who vote no but still want the improvements are making. Maybe that’s ok, but for myself, if there is something I want badly enough I’d rather take action into my own hands instead of leaving it to chance. People do this all the time, for example when you need a phone, you chose to pay the extra money for the iPhone for whatever reason. This is the same, the choice is in your hands. It’s not ideal but the cards have been dealt and you need to make the most of it. Frankly this could be as historical as when Vancouver decided it did not want a highway running through the city and that’s how I view the situation.

To be honest if we go way back my ideal situation would be have been the Provincial government not mandate the fare gate and compass card and instead of building the new Port Man bridge, which hasn’t hit ridership targets by the way, that they instead implemented this plan. But what do I know. Happy Voting!

For an interesting discussion listen to this see CBC referendum Q&A.

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Biking in San Francisco

Biking! This is a topic that I’ve wanted to write about for some time. It’s something very close to me and one of the primary things that shaped my first impressions of San Francisco. Biking was my main mode of transportation in Vancouver and one of the things I loved most about the city. So much, that when deciding if I should move it was one of my lifestyle condition that was non-negotiable. I mean who wants to own a car or be in a shuttle and waste time commuting in traffic when you can get exercise and freedom on two wheels. So how does San Francisco stack up? Let’s see.

1) Geography – San Francisco is know for its hilly geography, so it might come as a surprise that biking is a thing here, but it is. It takes a while to be able to navigate the roads to avoid hills, and my first few months here was discovering this challenge. I think I have a good handle on it now, but there are still parts of the city that I wouldn’t want to bike to either because it’s too hilly, not worth the trouble or there is no clear bike route. Particularly the north east section of the city above Market street. To this day I have no idea how to navigate the area on bike. With Vancouver geography, the hills are less dramatic and more predictable. The grid and the hills mostly align so you have an easy sense of measuring elevation differences and evaluating how difficult the ride will be. So in this category Vancouver wins. Lucky for me my office and my house are in the flatter more predictable, part of the city and my commute today is not drastically different than Vancouver.

2) Weather – San Francisco weather is not as crazy awesome as its surrounding area. Due to the surrounding geography San Francisco attracts fog and wind. It is city of micro climates where one place will be foggy and 10 degrees and another will be sunny and 18 degrees. (that’s Celsius BTW). Generally this is predicable to where you live in the city and the time of year/day. Another factor I used in deciding where to live. For the last few years though California has been in a drought and the weather has be warmer and sunnier with less rain than it use to be. (At least that’s what i’ve been told). This makes it ideal for riding, so in this category San Francisco wins. I mean it’s February right now with a high in the low twenties/high teens, how can you argue with that. I know come 1 year I will miss the beautiful season, that I’ve come to expect and love, but with respect to biking, waking up almost every day like it’s spring is pretty sweet. Not to say Vancouver’s weather is bad. It’s actually awesome most of the year for biking as long as it’s not rainy. The overcast can even be considered a plus.

3) Safely – Unlike the other two categories this is a decisive win for Vancouver. This is the first thing I immediately noticed. I believe the root of this problem is the dominance of car culture. Every other form of transportation is considered second class to the car and is treated like that. For example pretty much every day I commute I will find at least 2 vehicles pull over in the bike lane. Roads, mostly downtown, are larger both in width and space between lights, meaning cars can travel faster, and they do. General road maintenance is very poor. Lot of potholes and shitty patch work or construction. I got a 3 inch nail puncture my tire 3 months ago. Although I am usually pretty aggressive on the road, I’ve definitely have heightened my awareness. A few weeks ago one of my co-workers got ticket by a police officer because he crossed a traffic light when it was an advance pedestrian walk signal, 10 seconds before the light went green. So now I am also watching out for police. I think there is a lot San Francisco can do to make this better, I really need to get onto the SF bike coalition to put some suggestions in. For example Market street, is the worst bike corridor I have every seen. I pretty much refuse to ride on it, but I will rant on that in a separate post.

4) Biking Alternative – As awesome as biking is, sometimes you need an alternative. Vancouver has awesome public transportation that kills SF hands down. However SF has uber, lyft, side car and a slew of other taxi related services that are a bit pricey, for those one off moments, are actually very useful. While Vancouver taxi services are stuck in 1950, Vancouver has modo, Car2Go and Zip, which are all plentiful and convenient. Car rentals are cheaper and more plentiful in San Francisco and car sharing is a thing here, but haven’t really given it a try yet. So this is a tough category to compare, it’s pretty much even, but I am going to have to pick Vancouver. Simply because I value good pubic transit and car sharing over cooperate business.

I hope eventually I will have smaller more focus posts, but for now I got lots to say.

Home sick

Moving to a new city is an interesting experience. No matter what eventually at one point, you are going to get home sick, I don’t care who you are, it happens. In Vancouver it definitely happened to me and here it also still happens every now and then and I’ve been here for 9 months! For me the biggest thing is relationships. I’ve meet a lot of people here and I continue to put my self in situation where I meet more people, but it is exhausting. Sometimes you meet people who are for sure not compatible and you feel your wasting your time, other times you meet groups of people that all know each other and sometime its hard to get a sense of an individual or they just don’t like you. Then sometime you want to lie on the sofa on a Friday night, while you hear the party going on downstairs and realize that if you were home, there would a friend who would want to be on the sofa with you and it’s not that lame. Some of it is the numbers game, your friends pool has dropped 90%, what do you expect. Other times it’s just requires time. For me in particular I am a slow person to open up, I definitely take a while to be myself around strangers and that makes a huge difference, when someone really know you. One thing I am very thankful for is a steady flow of incoming visitors. At least 12 visits by my last count. Lot’s of people come to San Francisco either for vacation or work.  I’ve seen Michael at least a half dozen times thanks to his new Salesforce job. Today Tina will be visiting and I am really looking forward to catching up.

Podcasts the new hotness

In a change of pace I am going to try a lighter topic that’s been coming up a lot recently. Podcasts!

podcast-headphones-300x272

I started listing to podcasts asking a few co-worker what they listen to, then a few months later I was introduced to Serial. By now Serial is old news and has broken the record of most popular podcast of all time. It’s seemed to have shed new light on the podcast scene. And like everyone else I am curious at what other people are listening to.  For me a podcast should be ideally 15-40min, perfect for commuting and not too long to lose concentration. I value episode quality over frequency of releases and I enjoy something educational that is told in an entertaining way. Thus far my picks are:

Planet Money – http://www.npr.org/blogs/money/
The first podcast I started listening to consistently that got me hooked. ~20min, perfect for my commute. With entertaining stories having to do with Economics, without being too technical or boring.

Intelligence^2 US debates
“Oxford style debates”: Sometime things are not as straight forward as seem. This podcast frames a motion, takes the survey of the audiences point of view before the debate begins and a survey after. The winning side is the one who numbers have changed the most. The debate is structure with a team of two on each side of the motion. Round 1 is an Opening statements. Round 2 debater address each other and take questions from the audience and the host, Round 3 is the closing statements.

This American Life
All of the above mentioned podcasts are from npr and “This American Life” seems to be the flagship npr podcasts of them all. I must admit I haven’t gotten hooked on this one. Sometimes I don’t like the topics and they tends to be a little longer than I’d like. However I have definitely heard episodes that where great.

So what do other people listen too? Are their any good Canadian podcasts? I’ve tried some CBC podcast, but haven’t found anything to add to the daily rotation.

Is America the land of opportunity?

To answer this question, it’s first important to understand why America has the reputation as “the land of opportunity”.

I came to understand this while I was traveling in Japan with a good friend of mine Adam. If you haven’t been to Japan, it’s fascinating country from a cultural prospective. The country juxtapose its advanced society with old cultural tradition values, which makes it a very interesting place to experience. Japan also has this weird fascination with America culture but not in the way other countries have, but more in the kaizen way . Why else would a country love baseball, right?

To really understand this, you have go back in history and re-play what happened in the early to mid twentieth century when America was building this reputation. Adam referred me to the documentary series titled “The men who built America” which you can find on youtube. If your unfamiliar with the content, stop reading this and watch it NOW. It’s an excellent multi-part series talking about some of the most powerful people in America’s history who all started out as regular people, became crazy rich and put America on the map as the place of opportunity.

For Japan another major event played a significant role. The atomic bomb on Hiroshima that lead to Japan to admit defeat in World War II. The Japanese in general are very honorable and stubborn. Admitting defeat I imagine was not easy, but the effects of an event like Hiroshima really causes you to think. It is remarkable that after such an event like that American and Japanese relations are very good today and not like say, North Korea. I believe that speaks favorably to both nations. Both nations felt bad and responsible that it came to such a horrible event. If your are ever in Japan, you MUST visit the museum in Hiroshima that is a living memorial to the events that took place there. It’s a excellent display of the events that took place.

So what about today, is American still the land of opportunity?

After watching “The men who built American” it’s not hard to imagine the Internet as the next logical chapter in the series. And it’s hard to deny that America is leading the charge in this new and exciting world. There are a few things that I believe contribute to this:

– America has the critical mass in terms of population to substantially scale ideas.  Growing up in Canada it was pretty common to hear about business expand into the American market to grow, or be bought out by American company.
– American has a favorable political environment. In America corporation have quite a bit of power and are able to get away with many things.  A lot of the laws benefit corporation. It’s Capitalism at it finest.
– Inertia from previous success. Much of the success in American is by people immigrating to the U.S. to fulfill their dream. This is still true today. Home talent and success continue to attract more talent and success.

I am not saying these are these attributes are something to be emulated. There are a lot of other attributes to measure success, but I continue to be curious at all attributes. Like the Japanese I am fascinated in striving for perfection. To finally answer the question, my opinion is American is still full of opportunity, but that opportunity is continuously becoming less accessible to the majority of the American population, while becoming exclusive to the wealthy.

Guns in America Bang Bang!!

It pains me that after living in San Francisco, claimed to be the most liberal city in America, for only 8 months that I have enough experiences to write on this topic. It really comes down to a series of events that happened within weeks of each other that really made me realize the reality of guns here. Luckily I was prepared for this shock, long before I even started interviewing for companies in the U.S. I accepted the fact the positives would come with some negatives, such as this.

America, Fuck YA!

The first ‘gun’ event happened when the Giants won the world series. Now I am not a baseball fan, so all the hype in the city was lost on me, but I was repeatedly told to stay away from The Mission are after the final game. Surely enough the Giants won the series and things got out of hand as predicted.  I bring this up because I was shocked at the certainty of the event yet it still happened. Why wasn’t it prevented? and more importantly why didn’t people make a big deal about it after the fact. I am obviously comparing this to the riot that happening in 2011 after Vancouver lost in the Stanley cup finals. I did not witness either event first hand, but both seemed to involve looting, violence, yet the reaction by the public, news and authorities following the incident where completely opposite. In Vancouver everyone made a big deal about it, politicians got involved and the police got involved using social media to charge some people, where in SF it was reported and life went on.

The next event was a co-worker of mine had his home broken in to. A few days later he find out his neighbor also had a break-in attempt while she was home. She happened to scare off the intruder and decided to buy a gun for protection.

That same week, we had a guest crashing at our house because his new living situation ended up not working out. His new roommate who he did not know, was a druggie doing meth was hallucinating and had the cops called on him. The landlord an old lady who lives in the same complex ended up also buying a gun for protection.

Finally, and possibly the most entertaining since I was involve in this happened a few days later. I brought up some of these events when on first date, when she asked what were some differences between Canada and America. I find out that she supports the right to bear arms, although she never would carry one herself. Her argument was very weak, something along the line someone has to be protecting people and against the crazies. Claiming that if someone had a gun in the bar/restaurant we were at she would feel safer knowing someone could protect against a wacko. I ended up getting a bit too much into that conversation, possibly due to having a drink or two. I did not understand and my blood pressure was slowly rising as I disputed the argument. Surly enough we decided to chill out and switch to other interesting polarizing topics. All which were very fascinating and good conversation but, needless to say, it didn’t work out.

I knew America had a lot of guns, but I was shocked at the numbers.  I don’t think I will ever understand the need for acquiring a gun unless it for hunting.  There is not one situation where if you add a gun it will make thing better. Funny enough most people I’ve talk to about this also agree. They agree that simply owning gun, puts you at increased risk of accidents, being a target, or it getting stolen as an item of value. There are a lot less violent ways to protect yourself, if that really is the intension and I couldn’t imagine what killing a person would do to you.

I’ll end this with a brilliant piece by comedian Jim Jefferies that I recently saw which sums it up nicely. After watching it read the wikipedia entry about the Port Arthur massacre to get a sense at how powerful and scary guns are.

Health Care in America

Full disclosure to the readers, this is complex topic that I admit to not fully understanding, but no fear I have plenty to say on what I’ve experienced thus far. This post will focus on my first experience of obtaining coverage. Deciding the type of coverage was one of the many decision I had make in the first few weeks at work. I had multiple options to chose from and a lot of information to figure out in order to evaluate them. To summarize health care here consists of complex network of health providers each of whom could be public, non-profit, private. They all negotiate rates with insurance companies, which you purchase coverage from in the form of a health plan. Sounds pretty straight forward right? I imagine, Canada works the same way except the government is the sole provider of the health plan, but to be honest, I don’t actually know, I never needed to. Probably because I am young, healthy and grew up with it just there, always with extra coverage covered by someone. Whatever it is, +1 to the Canadian system for simplicity. So what is the difference? The difference is the insurance companies who have negotiated with certain health providers in effect segmenting the market into what they call in-network and out-of network providers. ie. those who are preferred because of of negotiated rates and those who are not respectively. Furthermore since this is insurance they package things up into a complex set of options for you to pick what suits you best. Whereas in Canada it’s a one size fits all.

The best analogy of this I can think of is car Insurance. My friends in Vancouver who originally grew up in Ontario know, that in Ontario car insurance is mandatory and provided by the private sector. These companies compete for your business and basic economics says competition will drive efficiency and lower costs in effect benefiting the consumer.  In BC however, car insurance is provided by ICBC (Insurance Corporation of British Columbia) a public provincial entity, there is no competition (like Canadian health care). I never owned a car in B.C. and I often heard car insurance being more expensive in B.C. then Ontario, which aligns with basic economic principles, but having full dominance has other advantages.

So like Ontario Car insurance there is a lot of choice and choice is good right? For me,my choices in health care plans consisted of an EPO plan (exclusive provider organization), PPO plan (preferred provider organization), an HSA plan or an HMO plan. These options basically make tradeoffs between doctor flexibility, coverage and costs, based on what your health and financial needs are. I am not going to get too much into the detail of each plan because the pro and cons really depend on your situation and its way too much to cover. For the curious the Internet has a wealth of information. However to give you an idea, if you want the ability to see specialist with referrals, but don’t mind being restricted to in-network providers and want costs that are predictable an EPO might be the best option. Make note though, I said predictable costs not necessary the lowest costs. Costs is actually a tricky thing to measure, since the cost of each plan depends on what you use and is a combination of one or more of the following means: premiums (regular per pay cheque amount), a deductible (Like car insurance a fixed dollar amount before your coverage actually starts), co-insurance (a percentage of the bill that is your responsibility) or co-pay (a pre-determined fixed dollar amount for the service). In the EPO case you premium are high, but you have no deductible or co-insurance. Your only additional cost is a co-pay, which is a fixed dollar rate which you know ahead of time. Are you sufficiently confused yet? A lot of people I’ve talk to prefer the PPO plan, since its the Cadillac of health care plans meaning you pay a lot but you get the best of everything and don’t have to worry about anything.

So what plan did I choose? I picked the HSA plan and is primary reason why I wanted to write this article. The HSA plan has some unique feature that I really like to share. The plan is geared toward the healthy and health conscious persons. Basically the plan rewards you for staying healthy. It cover preventative care at 100% (things like physicals, shots, tests, etc…) and it is the only plan with no premiums. However it does have the highest deductible. Meaning if something does happen or whenever you use it, you must pay your deductible and then your insurance kicks in at the competitive rates. Again rewarding you if you don’t use it. The plan comes with an HSA (health savings account) that is loaded with $800 each year for medical expenses + $200 more if you do a physical that year. In addition the HSA account works like kind of like tax shelter (think RRSP). You can put money into the HSA account tax free and watch it grow. That money can only be used towards health care. Withdrawing it for any other purpose has major penalties. Finally the account is associated with you and not your employer. Meaning it stays with you for life. The down side of this plan is it requires the most effort to manage because every decision will effect you financially and it is complex to predict what the cost to you of a doctors visit will be.

What I like about this plan, is the aspect of rewarding you for staying healthy, while forcing you to think of the future of your health. I do wonder how a concept like that could be introduced into the Canadian health care system. One idea I’ve had long ago was to give consumers full and easy access to all their medical history. I believe in empowering people to take responsibility for there health. Anything that educates and works towards preventative care is good.

Stay tuned for future posts when I use my health plan for the first time.