Below the Radar Transcript

The Trip Diary: B-Line to the Future – with Bowinn Ma & Uytae Lee

Speakers: Steve Tornes, Bowinn Ma, Uytae Lee

[Original Music]

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Steve Tornes  0:20  
Hello listeners! Welcome to The Trip Diary, a Below the Radar podcast series that examines movement in urban space. I’m Steve Tornes, with SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. In the before times, I graduated from the SFU Urban Studies Program while doing research on the Vancouver Bike Share Program and Employer-Based Transit Subsidies. Over the course of this series, we will explore how different commute modes impact daily life and why we need to think about transportation in our urban design. The Trip Dairy was recorded on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

[Sound of Skytrain doors opening]

Steve Tornes  1:15  
When I travel, I enjoy the journey itself. But it is only a journey if I am going somewhere, if I have a destination. When it comes to time and the future, there are so many destinations to choose, and many ways to get there. And like any good transportation planner, I know my commute mode changes what my destination can be.

[Sound of SkyTrain Jingle]

Steve Tornes  1:36  
Over the last few weeks, we have talked about equity, commute mode shifts, cycling and alternate forms of transportation. Today, I want to combine all those topics to talk about the future. As the Amazing Criswell once said, “We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”

Steve Tornes  1:57  
Today we are going to talk with Bowinn Ma and Uytae Lee. I invited these guests because their work is about public engagement and community building, though in different ways. I didn’t want this podcast series to just be about facts and numbers, but about community mobilization, so I hope that these conversations provide you with some direction about how to advocate for your community.

Steve Tornes  2:22  
Our first guest is Bowinn Ma and she was one of the leaders of the Integrated North Shore Transportation Planning Project. The project is a lesson about how to bring people on board with change in their communities. We also talk about protests which led to less transportation options in the District of West Vancouver. The future isn’t always bright, and we should be aware of all possible futures.

[Sound of Skytrain doors closing and then taking off]

Steve Tornes  3:00  
Hi, and welcome aboard the Trip Diary is great to have you here Bowinn Ma, MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale and Minister of State for Infrastructure. How are you today?

Bowinn Ma  3:10  
I'm doing well Steve, how are you?

Steve Tornes  3:12  
I'm doing great as well. Would you like to introduce yourself to the audience Bowinn.

Bowinn Ma  3:16  
While you already did a great job of it, my name is Bowinn Ma MLA for North Vancouver-Lonsdale. And I serve as the Minister of State for Infrastructure working with the Minister of Transportation and Infrastructure on the delivery of major projects like the Pattullo Bridge Replacement Project, George Massey Crossing, Broadway Subway, Surrey-Langley SkyTrain, and more. I've also been working closely with the minister on flood recovery events after they hit our highway systems last November, as everyone in British Columbia will know.

Steve Tornes  3:49 
So, you are a licensed professional engineer. And you previously worked as a project engineer for the Vancouver Airport Authority, I have no doubt that you have thought about transportation infrastructure before your election. So, let me ask you, what does a meaningful transportation system look like to you? And has your perspective on transportation changed going from being a private citizen to being an elected MLA?

Bowinn Ma  4:14  
Yeah, I mean, I would say that a meaningful transportation system is one that enables people of all abilities and income levels to safely access the goods, services, people and places that they need, or want to have access to in a way that respects the environment and acknowledges the very real limitations of space. And I suppose that as I say that out loud, it hardly sounds like I'm talking about transportation at all. But I really am. If you think about it, why is it that we travel? Why do we need mobility in our lives, very few of us will commute or take local trips for the sake of engaging in the act of traveling, most of us are trying to access something that we need or want. We need groceries, we need medical services, we need to go to our place of work, we're trying to be close with or spend time with people that we love. Sometimes we go to them, sometimes they come to us, even delivery services are a way to access goods, that might save us a trip, but it generates some kind of transportation network need on the other end.

Bowinn Ma  5:19  
And of course, with 40% of all of our provinces GHGs being produced by transportation, the whole part about respecting the environment and climate is really, really quite a big deal. This combined with the very real limitations of space that we have to work with, especially in urban settings, means that we can't all be traveling around in single occupancy vehicles all the time, particularly with a growing population. So that's where multimodal transportation systems come in, walking, cycling, rolling, rail transit, and where the need for good land use planning comes in as well to reduce the distance of travel that it takes to access what you're looking to access. So yeah, I think that that would be how I would describe an ideal transportation system.

Steve Tornes  6:07  
So, you mentioned that 40% of emissions are transportation related. We have to reduce the climate impact of our transportation, electrification and transit immediately come to mind as ways to do that. But the underlying issue to me, which you have also mentioned, seems to be land use planning. What do you think is the relationship between land use planning and transportation? And how do we create change on such a fundamental level? This is not an easy quick fix.

Bowinn Ma  6:35  
No, it's definitely not an easy quick fix. When it comes to transportation and land use, it's no longer sufficient to think about transportation networks as though it is something that you can build and plan in isolation. The days of thinking about transportation as simply, you know, you've got a road. And if you need more, if you've got too much congestion, you just add a whole bunch of lanes, those days are over. We've already had decades and decades of data to demonstrate that transportation network planning is far more complex than that. It has a lot to do with the way that people make choices about why they travel and how they travel. And a lot of that has to do with what I came talked about earlier on about accessing things, you know, they're accessing their place of work, they're accessing groceries, they're accessing their grandparents and their grandchildren, in order to see and spend time with them. They're trying to go to things.

Bowinn Ma  7:33  
And so, what would it look like for our transportation system, if we brought those things closer together. And land use planning is a lot about trying to anticipate what it is that communities need and want to access both at a at a community level, but also at an individual level, although I mean, obviously, we're not necessarily designing an entire network for one person, but individual needs have a lot to do with this. And so, building homes close to where people work, and building childcare close to people's homes and building schools close to close to those communities and giving people access to grocery stores around the corner where they could walk down the block instead of getting into their cars and driving 20 kilometers. All of that is extremely relevant.

[Sound of bus]

Steve Tornes  8:23  
To me, Infrastructure is all about choices. Nothing is inevitable. But it all comes from coalition building discussion and negotiation and vision. So, with that in mind, what is INSTPP, how did it develop, how did this report, full of recommendations, even begin?

Bowinn Ma  8:42 
Yeah, so INSTPP, was a way for us to get the North Shore in step with each other on the issue of transportation. But it stands for the Integrated North Shore Transportation Planning Project, I N S T P P. And this started as an initiative of mine off the side of my desk. And it came about because I was spending a lot of time talking with a lot of local leaders, and a lot of stakeholders in the lead up to my election in 2017, which was the first time I was elected as an MLA. And it was very clear that transportation was one of the top issues and certainly the most vocalized issue that people on the North Shore talked about, and were concerned about.

Bowinn Ma  9:32 
And I sought to try to figure out like, what is the fundamental problem that we're dealing with here, like, why is it so hard? Why is it so difficult for us to address transportation on the North Shore or anywhere, and it is a very, you know, it is a more technical concept than then people might originally imagine it to be, you know, we already established you can't just triple the size of a highway and expect everything to be fine. There's a lot more to it. But what I found was that, in talking with stakeholders, what I found the most common concern or challenge that was brought up over and over again, was the fact that the different levels of government and different transportation agencies were not necessarily talking to each other as much as maybe they should.

Bowinn Ma  10:24 
So, on the North Shore, just taking that as an example, we've got three municipalities, each of which is responsible for, you know, their local roads within their own boundaries. We have a transit agency, TransLink that provides transit services and has some responsibility over the major road networks, which includes some local roads, we had the ports, which of course, has generates a lot of transportation activity. We also had the rail line that went through the North Shore, and of course, the provincial government that deals with highways, which cuts through the North Shore. And then we also have two First Nations. So, everybody kind of had their own little piece of the puzzle. But we weren't necessarily working in, in step as much as we should, because you can't take a transportation network, cut it up into little bits, have different entities plan only around their own little jurisdictions and expect it all to fit together perfectly. You really need much more collaboration and cooperation in order to make a transportation system work as effectively as possible. So INSTPP started, based on the idea that we needed a collective vision for the North Shore, but how do we actually get that started? I went to each of the three mayors at the time, and I remember talking to each of them, asking whether they would be interested in participating in a joint effort, like what I described to create a collaborative collective vision of transportation on the North Shore. And a remember each of them said "Yeah, I guess so, we will participate." But they also expressed a lot of, how do I say, they weren't optimistic that it would go anywhere. You know, they had said, "you know, this has been tried before Bowinn, like it never goes anywhere. So and so won't come to the table. This other person won't come to the table. That group never comes to the table. We'll get together and you know what, give it a shot. You're new, you've got energy. You want to do this, we'll get behind you but I, don't expect too much from it." 

Bowinn Ma  12:39 
That was basically kind of the start of this of this program. And but I really managed to get the project to take off when TransLink came on board and I have to credit him. His name is Geoff Cross, Vice President of Policy Development. Geoff Cross was Vice President with TransLink, who just jumped on board with this idea, when I spoke to him, agreed to have TransLink act as a secretariat to handle with the administration and the contract the, all the contract development that we would need to take on this project. 

Steve Tornes  13:15  
I think, INSTPP just in general, is something you should be very proud of and I think it is an excellent show of that collaboration that you mentioned, between different levels of government, because, yeah, living on the North Shore. I've heard that complaint many times. One thing I also really enjoy about INSTPP, just reading report regularly, is that you go through different ideas. And the report looks at the feasibility of those ideas, too. So, I think that it also engages with a much more like direct and honest conversation with the public too. It doesn't just say the findings, it also says the ideas that are not as feasible. What about that discussion aspect with the public itself?

Bowinn Ma  13:57  
Yeah, I mean, part of the work of INSTPP wasn't simply producing results, and expecting that everyone would come on board with them right away. In the beginning, the first phase of the INSTPP project was really about debunking myths and confirming facts. There were so many different perceptions about what was happening with transportation out on the North Shore. Like, for instance, one of the misconceptions was that the reason why we had such terrible traffic is because the North Shore's population was just growing out of control, you know, and so we wanted to test that theory. And we did that by checking census information, by check doing trip diaries, your podcast is named The Trip Diary, we did trip diaries, we actually also contracted data services from Google, because you know how you're traveling around in your car, and you're using your Google Maps feature, and it tells you don't take this route, take this other route, because there's tons of congestion on this road. Well, they know that because they're accessing a lot of data off of our phones collectively. And so, we actually integrated that data into the regional transportation model and analyzed that data for the purposes of the INSTPP program as well.

Bowinn Ma  15:22 
And what we found was that, first off, the North Shore's population was not growing out of control. In fact, it had a much slower population growth than the rest of the region. But what we did find is that the North Shore was actually producing and creating more jobs than they were bringing in working aged people. And so, jobs were growing at a faster rate than our population of working age people was growing. So how do you fill those jobs, and that's where we discovered or reconfirmed at least, that a lot of our travel on the North Shore is based on the, what I'm going to call the export of workers off of the North Shore to other places in the Lower Mainland and the import of workers from other places in the Lower Mainland onto the North Shore.

Bowinn Ma  16:16  
It was that kind of commuting behavior, cross community behavior that was really driving a lot of the traffic congestion at the peak times here, which also meant that we could take a look at why people were going off the North Shore for work and why they were coming on to the North Shore for work. And we're able to draw the conclusion that a big chunk of our traffic issues actually stems from the lack of housing affordability. People can't afford to live close to where they work. And so, they have to commute or there aren't jobs that pay commensurate to what it costs to live in an area and so they have to commute.

[Sound of Escalator]

Steve Tornes  16:56  
So, in 2019, I remember there being protests in West Vancouver about the R2 bus proposal, extending the route past Park Royal into Ambleside and Dunderave, presently the R2 bus stops at Park Royal. Can you explain the situation that happened there? And what it means for future transportation projects? Are there any lessons that we can learn from that, about that, about what happened?

Bowinn Ma  17:21  
Yeah, I mean, you reminding me now that I didn't really close the story that I was sharing earlier about the need to bring people along. So, one of the things that INSTPP did was through the process of confirming map facts, and identifying myths and debunking them, we also went out to the community to share that information. Because that was really required in order to increase the level of discourse around transportation so that it was rooted in reality. And I think that kind of work is really necessary for any community that wants to change the way that transportation is done. In their community, though they if they want to change the culture around transportation, we really need to be bringing people along. It is a hard sell, to go up to somebody who wants a third car bridge for the North Shore. To tell them that no, that's not going to solve the problem. In fact, it's likely to make it worse, without explaining to them why it would make it worse. So, there are a lot of misconceptions about transportation out there and how they interact with our, with land use planning in communities. And that's work that we all have to do.

Bowinn Ma  18:41  
You’re bringing you're bringing me back to the past, now, Steve, and I haven't thought about it for a while. So, part of TransLink plan was to implement a new B-Line route for the North Shore that would run from Phibbs Exchange all the way through Dunderave. And because of the work of INSTPP, all three municipalities were very excited about this, this new Rapid Bus and working very well with TransLink to prepare the roads in a way that provides the Rapid Bus priority access and at signals and lane prioritization to make sure that it actually functions the way that we need it to function, which is that it should be fast. Ideally faster than driving in order to incentivize people to actually get onto the bus as opposed to take their cars from Phibbs Exchange over to Marine Drive. One of the misconceptions that is prevalent in some communities is that transit brings crime and that transit is bad for businesses. And sadly, this misconception was quite pervasive among some groups in West Vancouver. The Rapid Bus, in order for it to be successful, did require some lane configuration changes. And it required some changes to some of the street parking that was along Marine Drive, in particular out towards West Vancouver.

Bowinn Ma  20:13  
People love the parking. People really love their street parking. And I think that there are in some communities who don't understand the benefit that a good solid public transportation system brings to everybody in their communities, it can be very scary to see your community change. And so, there was a very public, very effective campaign by some residents in West Vancouver against having the B-Line travel further than just inside the boundaries of their municipality. And sadly, that pressure did successfully impact the choices that the council ultimately ended up making.

[Sounds of construction]

Steve Tornes  21:04 
I think the reason why I always keep thinking about that moment in time is because it suggests as potential future that even if we want to expand transportation networks throughout the region, there might be some communities that, at least some residents within those communities will actively fight against those expansions. And sometimes the future is not about like slow progressive change. Sometimes it is about one future turned out this way, but it could have turned out another way. How can we avoid these potential limiting futures that sometimes do happen. How can we do our best to move futures into a way that is more transportation friendly/just more equitable in general, because a lot of people depend on those transportation networks?

Bowinn Ma  21:51  
I mean, you're asking a pretty big question. And I think that if it was easy to answer, we probably would have done it by now. But it will involve a variety of things and the right combination and the right order, and there is no magic, step by step guide for this. But certainly, we need to bring communities along with the vision that we've set for, for those communities. Ideally, the visions that leaders and politicians, elected officials, that they've set for the communities were also helped, built by those communities themselves, so that it's an easier sell, when we actually go to implement them.

Bowinn Ma  22:30  
The implementation of a lot of these kinds of transportation changes is can be painful. I mean, construction is really disruptive. There's it you don't necessarily see the benefits right away. A lot of the time, it will take layers upon layers of different changes, different choices, and each of those choices on their own, might not immediately resonate. But the system that we're building together will sometime in the future. And so, you're asking people to basically sacrifice current convenience for the vision of a better future. And in order to do that, you've got to be able to sufficiently articulate what that better future is and convince them that you can actually get there. That's one part. 

Bowinn Ma  23:20  
The other part of the challenges that a lot of local governments, a lot of provincial governments, a lot of leaders face, is that it is impossible to hear all of the voices that you need to listen to, all at once. And oftentimes, our systems of government, even when they provide public engagement opportunities, and opportunities for public feedback are really utilized only by people with the privilege of time and capacity to do so. If you are a single mother, working three different jobs, coming off a double shift, worried about getting food on the table for your kid, and keeping a roof over your head every single day, you're not going to have necessarily the time the mental space, the emotional capacity to then go sit in a five-hour local council meeting to make sure that you get your voice heard there.

Bowinn Ma  24:18 
We do have tools available to us that I believe have really expanded opportunities for people from all walks of life to participate in public hearings and public consultations. Big tool is the internet, when you don't necessarily need people to take time out of their day and physically go to a place while, during that, you know, while they're also trying to get to work and do everything else that they need to do, then you you're providing a lot of opportunity for people. And so, I'm hopeful that these tools will open doors for broader engagement. And the reason why that broader, more diverse engagement is necessary, is because if you only hear from people with the privilege of time and capacity to on any given issue, then you're only hearing their perspective. If you are only hearing from people who you know, own multiple six figure value cars about public transit, then you might not be hearing about how important that public transit line is to the grandmother on a fixed income in order to go see her grandkids every day. Or the worker who is taking that Rapid Bus from Phibbs Exchange, and had hoped to be able to get to their job out in Dunderave on it. Yeah.

Steve Tornes  25:45 
I know I threw you like a big question there. And I think it's a big question just because it is one that like I grapple with and wanted to know, but I will move on to a hopefully a much smaller question. Let's move on to climate change. So especially with atmospheric rivers in 2021, which caused some major infrastructure damage to the roads outside of the Lower Mainland, I remember that we were largely caught cut off from the interior. And I worry that things are only going to get worse, climate-wise. So how will climate change affect our transportation infrastructure? And what can we do to mitigate it?

Bowinn Ma  26:24 
Well, I mean, climate change is going to affect even more than our transportation infrastructure, it will affect all infrastructure, it will potentially affect the way that we live our lives on a day-to-day basis, and the way that we prepare for the future. We are constantly updating what we know about, what we believe we know about, what a 50-year, 100-year, 200-year, 300-year, return event on floods or storm are. And the storm event of November 2021 certainly provided us with a lot of data to consider. When it comes to our transportation systems, especially like highways, we can design new highways to withstand what we now know is likely coming with climate change, we can increase the size of culverts, we can, you know, utilize more riprap on the sides of the on the highways, we can find better alignments for them. But we do have a very real challenge when it comes to existing highways, a lot of which, probably the vast majority of which, were built before you and I were alive. A lot of our highways in British Columbia would have started out as you know, a forced logging road that was then expanded into a local road that was then built out and eventually became a very important connector for that region of the province. Our province is huge, we've got highways everywhere, not all of them were built to standards that we would today expect those highways to be built. 

Bowinn Ma  28:07 
We got to look at the way that we do our that we move goods around. And we need to change the way that we move goods around in, from two perspectives. One is of course, goods movement generates a ton of greenhouse gas emissions. So, we need to figure out how to reduce those greenhouse gas emissions while still moving goods to where they need to go. It's a pretty difficult challenge, if you think about it. When it comes to personal vehicle, personal transportation, there are a lot of ways that we can decarbonize that are available to us right now. But when it comes to goods movement, the trucks that we rely on to transport goods are not as easily converted to electric systems. Electric systems right now don't necessarily provide the amount of power that is required to get those loads up, you know, the Coquihalla or, or to get them from Vancouver all the way into Alberta on in the timeframe that they are currently pressured to take. So, we have a lot of work to do there.

Bowinn Ma  29:17  
The other reason why we really need to be looking at the way that we move goods around is because right now the system is so vulnerable and we saw that in the November flood events. When the Coquihalla was down for that month, when Highway One through the Fraser Valley was cut off. When Highway One through the Fraser Canyon was cut off. Like we saw our transportation, our supply chains almost grind to pretty much grind to a halt. You know, our supply chain not just here in British Columbia, but through to the rest of the country ground to a halt. When we were effectively cut off from the rest of Canada and the rest of Canada was effectively cut off from the largest trading port in the country. 

Steve Tornes  30:07  
Do you worry about the future? Are you hopeful? What are the different possible futures that you can see? I only ask big questions as you can tell.

Bowinn Ma  30:14 
If I wasn't worried about the future, I wouldn't be devoting my life right now to trying to make a better world. Absolutely. I think that without deliberate concerted efforts by people who care, we can end up in a place that is pretty grim. The climate emergency is upon us. And we know that inaction is not an option. We know that inequality is growing, inaction on that is not an option. We cannot afford to sit idly by and allow these things to happen. We have to we have to go out and try to make change. It's why I went to politics. It's why a lot of people get involved in politics, whether they run or not, why a lot of people engage in advocacy work. And frankly, why a lot of people do the things that we do in our day to day lives. We might not think about it as trying to make the world better. But we are trying to make the future better for somebody, whether it's ourselves or our children or our families or the communities around us. I am hopeful. I think I have to be hopeful. Because again, if I had no hope that things can be better in the future, than I also would not necessarily be taking the time now to try to bring that better future to us.

[Sound of Skytrain jingle and Announcement of “train to King George, please keep moving into the train to allow others behind you to board]

[Original Music]

[Original Music Fades]

Steve Tornes  31:50  
I’ve known Uytae Lee for a few years now. I think I even met him before he started his YouTube series, “About Here”. Uytae is unique among our guests. Rather than being a policy maker, or a researcher, he is a filmmaker, YouTuber, and a journalist. Part of the struggle that I had with this series is that I wanted to connect you with guests who did original, unique research, but I didn’t want it to become so technocratic that you felt that only academics and politicians can make a change.

Steve Tornes  32:20  
For me, Uytae is the bridge. We discuss the importance of knowledge sharing, of becoming aware of urban planning topics, and how it can change the way you look at streets and urban landscapes.

[Sound of Skytrain doors closing and then taking off]

Steve Tornes  32:33 
So welcome aboard the trip diary. Uytae Lee. It is great to have you here. So, for the audience, what is your connection with transportation? And what do you want people to know about you? What is the Uytae story? And what can you tell us about the show about “About Here”?

Uytae Lee  32:50  
Oh gosh, well, we can zoom all the way back. My connection to public transportation, I would say is just a general interest in all matters, that are urban and local. I have, you know, from very, from my university degree, essentially, which is a degree in urban planning, I've just always been fascinated by these really, like local challenges that exist in our backyards, and our streets. And so that includes everything from housing challenges to environmental issues, you know, along the seawall, for example, or in our backyards and front yards to transportation. I think transportation is one of the things that, you know, anyone who lives in an urban area has an intimate experience with on a daily basis, or at least before the pandemic, they did. So, to me, that's kind of like, you know, what really draws me to the subject of transportation in general. And sort of, you know, what's my story? What's my, you know, MO in all this, you know, I have a degree in urban planning. And at the time, I was quite certain that I would probably end up in some career as an urban planner, you know, working either for governments, local governments, or in the private sector, who knows.

Uytae Lee  34:07  
And that is not what happened, I ended up starting a YouTube channel when I was in school, covering, you know, like urban planning topics, and that's kind of what has evolved into the work I'm doing right now, which is, like, again, doing more videos on these issues. And I suppose, to some extent, that has given me a lot of fulfillments, because I think one thing that really sort of struck me as an issue that urban planning has as a profession, is that, you know, despite how much our work impacts, you know, people's everyday lives, there's much less awareness about that work, and the policies that are happening in that field. So, how's that for a little brief, not so brief, summary about me?

Steve Tornes  34:51  
I think it's great. And I want to ask more about that, but I will go back to my original questions. So, thinking back to that moment, like right before you decided to get into urban planning, like what was that initial spark and what led to you wanting to go all the way to Halifax to study it?

Uytae Lee  35:10 
Oh, my goodness, okay. This is, you know, not as romantic of a story, as you know, one might think. I was kind of having a bit of an identity crisis leaving high school. I went to high school here in this area in Langley, and I was pretty dead set on becoming an engineer at the time. I, you know, had applied to UBC for engineering was accepted, had the scholarships in place and all that. And at some point, during my grade 12 year, I just, I kind of had the realization that just because you are competent at something, you know, like maths and sciences, doesn't mean you necessarily enjoy that kind of work. And so, I got to quickly realize like, oh, my goodness, like, you know, like, once it dawned on me that this could be like a lifelong commitment. I was like, I'm not sure if I want to be an engineer anymore. I withdrew my application and sort of went on this sort of very brief, intense search for what else is out there. And my mom's friend at the time, they put it in my mom's ear, that that might be something Uytae is interested in. And so, I was like, you know, what, sure, why not, like at this point, like, you know, summer is quickly approaching, I might as well put some application out there. And I put an application out to Dalhousie University in Halifax because it was one of the few schools in Canada that had an urban planning program for undergraduates. You know, it was the spark was more like a, an existential crisis, perhaps, that, you know, ultimately grew into like a really deep passion for these kinds of issues.

[Souind of Truck Backing Up]

Steve Tornes  36:49 
That is a story at least that I relate to a lot. When I had finished my undergrad, I came back and I didn't know what to do. I was still quite lost. And I will go to the library and just pick up like books that I had no previous knowledge on the subject. And one day I picked The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. And I loved the books so much that I think like two months later, I applied to SFU Urban Studies. And since then, I'm just like, this is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It felt a little bit spur of the moment. But the great thing about reading that book, you cannot walk down a street and not look at it differently. It changes your entire perspective. 

Uytae Lee  37:29 
Totally, that's what I tell anybody that will listen about urban planning as a field, is that it's just one of those subjects that once you get into it, it just makes you look at your city differently. I describe it like, you know, a fish in an aquarium, you know, a fishbowl, kind of gaining consciousness and realizing, oh, like, this whole environment is like, made up, you know, and somewhat artificial. And I have agency in changing that, perhaps.

Steve Tornes  37:54 
So, on that note about both the awareness of how streets and communities can be, how they can look different when you have certain knowledge of it. I wanted to ask you about something. So, there's one line in your series that I just keep thinking about. It is a small line. Probably a throwaway line. But it's one of those lines that I just kept thinking about over and over again. Near the end of near the end of the episode on industrial lands, you talk about the need to remind ourselves about the importance of those lands. You say, quote, reminding ourselves of that fact is the first step towards solving any industrial land crisis. So, I wanted to ask you, why is awareness the first step? Why is it so important for urban planning, which is often a top-down profession? Why is it important for the public itself to have an awareness?

Uytae Lee  38:45 
I mean, at first, I think it's very interesting to me that that's the line that stuck out to you. And, you know, I think ultimately, you're right, it is truly a call to public awareness over changes in the profession itself. And I guess for me, why that's important is, maybe I can start this way, this is maybe a more boring way to answer it first. But I do think that the planning profession has changed to the point where planners no longer see themselves as purely the experts in the room, and especially in the sort of post highway planning, blueprint planning style of the 60s and 70s, that saw the likes of Robert Moses, and, urban renewal, and all these sort of like large scale massive, very intrusive projects by planners, there has been a real emphasis that planning has to, at the end of the day, reflect the will of the public. And, you know, I think that, to me, I've seen that power, dynamic change where, you know, urban planners, you know, whether they do it in good faith or bad faith, have to engage with the public and have to incorporate public feedback into their plans.

Uytae Lee  39:56  
And so, with that in mind, when it comes to like, when it comes to an issue like industrial lands, that’s an issue that I think exposes a little bit of the challenges to public engagement. Because I think, to the average person, industrial lands aren't something that they think about or interact with on a daily basis. Right, you know, you and I, we certainly are very aware of the conditions of our streets, we're very aware of the conditions of our parks, we're very aware of new housing developments that are being built nearby. But we're not that aware of like, what's happening to, you know, rents for recycling depots, or, you know, this dairy processing plant that's closing down and has to move further out of the city. Like, those issues aren't like kind of, you know, really in that public consciousness. And so, when, you know, urban planners make a call out for public engagement, for input on how to manage our lands, like, I think, you know, sort of those under the radar, under the surface, but very important, puzzle pieces of our cities, like industrial lands, can kind of get the short end of the stick. So, to me, that's, like, you know, the public awareness piece is a critical part of how planning is done these days. And I think because of that, planners also have to be very conscious of like, what information is coming out about the planning process. You know, we can't just assume that the public knows everything. 

[Sound of skateboards and roller]

Steve Tornes  41:20  
And just building upon that, also, the question of who is the public? Is the public, the people who come out to these meetings? Or is there a greater public that, even though they're unaware about the issue itself, if put forward, they will have a strong opinion on it?

Uytae Lee  41:36 
Oh, gosh, I mean, that's, yeah, like that. We're getting full, a bit philosophical here. But like, I think that's a very good question. And a good way to frame this issue. I think there's like, from a pragmatic perspective, yeah, the public that matters, in this case, is the public that participates and comes out to these issues. But I think in a broader sense, like, urban planning, kind of has to serve the whole population, not just the interests of people who are privileged enough to, you know, engage, right? To come out to a council meeting, or to a planning, you know, public hearing. These activities are, you know, not only, placed at pretty inconvenient times of the day, but they're also like, just not fun to attend. I don't know if you've ever been to on yourself, but like, man, I think I can count on one hand, the number of times I've shown up to a council meeting, because it's just unbearable.

Steve Tornes  42:30 
And just on a side note, it also gets me thinking about who, who do these decisions impact and in an age of climate change as well. Those decisions can also go beyond the residents of a city, especially when it comes to emissions.

Uytae Lee  42:44  
You might be in like, sort of like the global sort of impacts that individual cities still contribute to.

Steve Tornes  42:50  
Exactly like, let's say if we want to do a development that's based upon sprawl, who are the people who are most impacted. I don't think you can separate the residents from the people who live far away from that city and say that there is no impact anymore.

Uytae Lee  43:06 
I completely agree. I think I mean from a very practical sense, the carbon emissions that we emit as a city here in Vancouver, are carbon emissions that go on to impact global warming crisis that the whole world is experiencing. But I also think that there are, you know, even like, planning trends in North American cities seem to influence a lot of trend planning trends elsewhere. There's a lot of assumptions, I think, abroad that like, you know, what we're doing in North America, or sometimes in Europe, I think, I think it's like, there's a chain, it's like North America always looks to Europe for their urban planning. And then like, you know, other countries abroad look to North America for their urban planning. And it's like, I think, like, there's like a real realization for me that what we do here matters because it also sets the tone for what happens in other cities, as well, maybe I'll leave it at that.

Steve Tornes  43:52  
That is a great point. So, one thing that I really enjoy about your show is that it takes all these urban planning concerns and ideas and makes them more accessible to a broader audience. You make theory fun. So, what did you want to accomplish with your show? What was your goal overall?

Uytae Lee  44:10  
Oh, man, I mean, that's, that's truly the highest praise. Yeah. I like to say that, like, my first goal of any video that I produce, is, is truly entertainment first, and because to me, I am under no illusion that like, you know, people are watching this because they have to be enlightened in some way. Or they have to become engaged, active, like, I don't know, like, members of the public. That's another layer to it. But I think, you know, for me, the videos have to be compelling and entertaining first. And, whatever meaning comes after that is, to some extent, secondary to me. That being said, you know, is there a part of it, where I really do want more people to know about urban planning issues? Absolutely. I think that's like, you know, for me, these are challenges that I personally find, like, so fascinating that I hope people can tune into and find equally as interesting and doing so, have an enjoyable CBC gem and chill night, or, like, you know, learn about something that they kind of didn't think about before, but, you know, makes them look at their city a bit differently, as we said.

Steve Tornes  45:15  
So, on that note, yeah, how did it how did you get the story, right, and prepare and then finally implement your episode on transit signage? What happened? How did this come about?

Uytae Lee  45:26  
Oh, gosh, you know what? I will say, for this one, it was a little easier than some of the other ones, man, like. Let's say, for this particular video on transit signage. So, this video, I think it's episode number four or five of the series. It's about basically, my ideas for how we can improve bus stop signs. And it kind of boils down to one main criticism I have about bus stop signs, which is that they are practically useless for navigating a transit system, you look at the sign, and I'm sure anyone can relate like, a usual bus stops, and it really just tells you, like, here's the bus stop. And here are the bus routes that go through it. But it doesn't tell you anything about where those buses are going. In some cases, they'll tell you when those buses come, but in many cases, they don't. And I think those are some of the, bigger flaws, I guess, or like things that are lacking and bus stops these days. So that's kind of how the video flowed out. And, you know, I kind of had this idea that, maybe the plot for the video could center around me actually going out and redesigning these bus stops myself, and seeing what people think about it. So, that's kind of the premise of this story.

Steve Tornes  46:47
And what did you find? Like, I remember in your episode, when you put up the signs, how did people react to them?

Uytae Lee  46:54  
You know, so, I will say, like, full disclaimer, I think some reactions were predictable, and didn't make it into the video, but like part of the reaction is like, hey, we've got our phones like this might be useful for someone that's new in town, might be useful for someone who's trying out a new bus route for the first time, but you know, it isn't lost on me that we do have other navigation devices available to us. That being said, yeah, there's like a ton of positive feedback. I think just, in seeing more care put into bus stop signage, you know, it's something that I get into a little bit in the video that we have like a pretty glaring inconsistency, I think in transit signage, when you compare buses to subways and SkyTrains here in Vancouver, where the signage for one is clearly dismal compared to the other. You go to a subway station or SkyTrain station, like there are maps everywhere, signs everywhere, it's very, very easy to navigate. And when it comes to the buses, like I said, there's just so little information to help, you know, passengers find their way around the system. And I think that's one of the more common threads I got back, when I sort of surveyed people about these bus stop signs is, wow, like someone actually thought about giving a damn about, you know, making these signs a little better, right.

Steve Tornes  48:16  
I'm thinking here now of what other guests have said, and if I had to try to channel them, I know that some of them would probably say, there is still a large percentage of the population that doesn't have phones. And they are some of the most marginalized members of our community. And another guest who focused specifically on newcomers talked about, and you kind of mentioned this already, but how, when people do their commutes, they often are unsure about where to get off, and they don't have a map in their head, they look for certain things on the street, and they're like, alright, here's where I get off. But once they're off, they don't really know whether this was the best route or not. Or they may just have different priorities when it comes to what is the best route, not necessarily efficiency, but just that predictability that they know it.

Uytae Lee  49:05  
Yes, yes, I think that's a very important point to keep in mind. I kind of glazed over that. But yeah, we might have, you know, these devices in our pockets, a lot of us anyways, that can help us navigate, but for a lot of other people, that's certainly not their reality. And I think, in many situations, it's just generally having that confidence of like, I know where this bus is taking me. It is. It's just like a, I don't know, like a very under underrated kind of experience to have as a as a transit user.

Steve Tornes  49:35  
Are you more hopeful or feel fearful about the state of transportation in our region?

Uytae Lee  49:41 
Ah, gosh, I, I mean, I feel like as a journalist of sorts, my default state is always fearful, and always looking for problems and challenges. And I'm going to try to temper that a little bit in my answer. I think, absolutely, are there challenges ahead for transportation, I think so. I think the sort of thesis of that whole video for me was that a pandemic like this could start kickstart a wave of funding cuts for public transit, that we might not be able to dig our way out of just because, you know, once a public transit system experiences cuts, the system becomes less and less useful for its users. And thus, it kind of creates this cycle where the more you cut public transit, the fewer users ride it, and then you cut it more and then fewer users ride it still. But I also do see this in some ways, optimistically, I think in crises like this, there are more fundamental changes that kind of come up for issues like this. There are, I think, a number of different sort of solutions that have been proposed that maybe wouldn't have been, like, politically feasible before the pandemic.

[background sound of SkyTrain]

Steve Tornes  50:54  
This just got me thinking about that meme of, there is an image of two people and one of them has just one lonely microphone in front of them. And it's labelled public transit. And then there is a person beside them, where there's tons of microphones around that person, and it's like Hyperloop, and autonomous vehicles. I think a lot of what you've talked about, and I'm thinking of the transit signage you mentioned, but also cuts in funding opportunities for transit, about the priorities of a city and of the region, about where we want to invest our capacity and energy and time. And I, I always feel like transit is underappreciated. It is underrated as a transit system, as a transportation system. And we're always looking for the next big thing, which isn't even in development.

Uytae Lee  51:41  
Yeah. Oh, my goodness, you're really touching on something that has become a bit of a pet peeve of mine, admittedly, the last few years. There's another meme that comes to mind. I think it's that carpool karaoke meme where, I think it's like Sir Elton John, and then like the guy that played him in a movie all, like dressed up in like frills and whatever. And I think yeah, like, it's kind of, you know, I think there is this kind of allure to new, and, I think bluntly put, like, very, expensive tech driven transportation solutions that appeal to us, because I think we look at our issues on the ground, around traffic congestion, and, you know, etc. And think that it needs like some sort of hard reset button, like a complete game changer of a revolution, when really, you're right. Like, if you dig into the numbers, like probably the most effective way to reduce congestion in our roads is just getting people onto buses, and I mean, buses specifically, like there's a lot, I think there's even more, you know, attention, especially in Metro Vancouver, towards SkyTrains being like the ultimate be all and end all of, you know, transit service provision, but if you dig into the numbers, you'll find that the majority of transit trips in this region are taken on a bus. And if we didn't have the buses, we would be absolutely screwed. It's just not even a contest, like the buses carry so many passengers on a daily basis, I'm struggling to remember the exact stat, but it's definitely more than 50%, if not closer to 60 or 70%, of public transit trips are taken on a bus here in Metro Vancouver.

Uytae Lee  53:27 
And so, you know, to me, like, I can't help but wonder, like, why is that? Why does public transit, like just get this sort of almost like stigmatized sort of, you know, overlooked treatment in our society. And I think, you know, to some extent, it's that, I mean, in the case of the buses, especially, there's a history of us perceiving it as a transportation method for the poor, or a transportation method of last resort. But I think that maybe feeds on itself to make the experience of riding those buses worse. You know, I think if we, you know, put in all the money that we're willing to put into Hyperloops, or SkyTrain stations or, I don't know, electric vehicle charging, you know, infrastructure all across the city, if we put all that money into just like putting more buses on the streets and getting dedicated bus lanes and expanding bus service, I think we would be able to get a surprisingly significant impact on, you know, traffic congestion and greenhouse gas emissions, you know, all of the above.

Steve Tornes  54:28 
So, one of the goals of this podcast, and of this podcast miniseries in general, is about knowledge mobilization, and getting people, for lack of a better term, activated. So, my question for you, if a transportation advocate wanted to raise awareness on a planning topic, do you as a filmmaker, as a journalist, do you have any advice for them?

Uytae Lee  54:52  
Oh, gosh. Yeah, yeah, I think, my, it's going to sound a bit boring. But like, for me, the surest way to make any kind of compelling piece of media or video content, is to always start from a problem that matters to as many people as possible. I think, no matter what, like, we urban planners, like we'd like to preach a lot. We have a lot of takes, and there's a lot of, you know, opinions we want to put out there. But I think at the end of the day, does it stem from a problem that someone on the ground can relate to and understand, and that could be as simple as, you know, hey, I don't want to be stuck in traffic for an hour every day, or I wish the buses came by, a lot more often. I think, to me, that has been like a tried-and-true sort of formula, to write my own stories. I think at the end of the day, like if you write your story that way, it kind of guarantees that there is value in it for you know, somebody out there.

Steve Tornes  55:51  
Well, let me say, thank you so much for coming on the podcast. I think you've been very generous with your time and your thoughts, and it's just always a joy to talk to you.

[Sound of Skytrain doors closing and then taking off]

[Sound of Terminus Station Waterfront]

Steve Tornes  56:06  
This concludes our fourth and final episode. As I struggle with the question of how to be a good citizen, a good commuter, a good ancestor, especially in the context of urban planning, I have to remind myself that the future is unwritten and that the only way to make our shared destination just and fair, is to work together and meet people where they are.

Steve Tornes  56:32  
Thank you to our guests, Bowinn Ma and Uytae Lee. And to you, listeners, thank you for joining me on this journey. This episode is roughly 58 minutes. This is about the same amount of time it MIGHT have taken to go on the B-Line from Dundarave, West Vancouver to Phibbs Exchange, North Vancouver, and still have 13 minutes to spare to go to Capilano University on the 245 bus.

Steve Tornes  57:05  
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. 

Steve Tornes  57:13 
A special thanks to the team that created this series: Paige Smith, Melissa Roach, Kathy Feng, Alyha Bardi, and Alex Masse. Original Music by Alex Masse. Sound design, editing and mixing by Paige Smith and Kathy Feng. Series artwork by Kathy Feng. Many hands make Lightwork. It has been a joy to work with all of you on this project. Head to the show notes to read up on some of the initiatives and examples mentioned in this episode.

[Original Music]

[Original Music Fades]

Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
July 25, 2022

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