Columnist at Business in Vancouver Magazine, avid cyclist and food policy advocate, Peter Ladner answers questions on Vancouver's housing crisis, discusses cost-effective bicycle lanes, and explains why cycling matters for a high-functioning city. Holding open the debate on why sourcing food locally changes city life in unexpected ways, he talks about the shift in food culture since penning The Urban Food Revolution. Will he ever run for mayor again? His service to the city of Vancouver still runs at full speed.
Tracy: I first met you when we both stopped by the affordable housing rally organized by the #DontHave1Million campaign. You mentioned a concern of yours which was that young professionals are moving away from the city because they can't afford a home that is appropriately sized for raising a family.
Peter: Yes. I don’t know specifically that we have any numerical data on this, but there is a lot of anecdotal data we could call it. I personally know people who want to have a family or are having a family, and they want ground level accommodation - either a detached home or a townhouse - where kids can run in and out and that gives them some kind of a backyard. Or they simply just want more space and they can’t afford it in Vancouver. They either surrender to the long commute from Langley or Maple Ridge, or they move away entirely. My daughter moved to Squamish, people might move to Victoria, others move to the interior. The numbers show that a house in the city would cost around $1 million, and that’s not a very nice house either.
And that’s a long-term investment for most people.
That’s a huge investment for not a very nice house. Some people say, "Well suck it up, that’s just the way it is." The city of Vancouver is a confined space between the mountains, the ocean, and the agricultural land reserves toward the border so we don’t have a lot of room to grow. Property is going to get more expensive, and land is going to get more expensive. That means that people who are able to afford it will stay here, and people who can’t, won’t. So some want to say, that's just life.
An issue that is brought up often is with what they call house flipping. Wealthy people who live in another country are purchasing houses here, no one moves into them, and then they're sold to a new buyer the next year for a massive increase from the original price.
We don’t know for sure about foreign investment that many point to China over. We don’t know for sure how many Chinese immigrant investors come in through the Quebec program and wind up in Vancouver like we're hearing. By one estimate it’s 45,000, most of which are millionaires who put pressure on the market. We don’t know how many people who are investing from abroad are immigrants (just like everyone else here except for First Nations), and plan to live here, or are in the process of living here or moving here. But we also don’t know how many are using this as a quick investment: as something to just flip as you mentioned, and make fast money. We also don't know how many are just parking money, holding on, and they don’t care when it comes out - they just need a place to park it. So it’s the people who just want to park their money, don’t ever intend to live here, will not contribute to the community, and who will not pay taxes here, that are the flashpoint for concern. Because if they get to have houses and young, working people who make the community go, make the economy go, and keep families together, can’t get housing? Well then there’s something wrong. That’s what people are ignited about I think.
Is there a solution that’s currently being looked at?
No one has a solution that everyone agrees on. There are a number of so-called solutions that are being used in other cities that people here are looking at, but I don't know whether the government is looking at them or not. People have suggested a tax on flipping, so if you own a home for less than five years, one year you pay a certain tax - a capital gains tax. If you hold it for longer, you pay a lower capital gains tax. So that’s one suggestion. Another has been on the property transfer tax - the tax you pay when you sell a property. If it’s a very expensive property that should be hiked. And if you’re not a resident, you should pay way more than somebody who is a resident. Maybe people who are residents don’t pay any property transfer tax, which is another suggestion. Some places in Australia have an outright prohibition on foreigners buying real estate. In fact most places in the world have some kind of prohibition on doing so. If you go to Bali, Mexico, France, or Japan, and a lot of other places, you just can’t buy real estate because they want to save housing for people who are going to live there and be part of the community. Here in Vancouver we seem to have agreed it’s okay that we have a resort type of community where people can be here for part of the year, tie up housing for the rest of the year without using it, and if they’re rich enough to pay for all of that, then we seem to not care.
Having stayed in New York this summer, I know people paying around $5,000/month for a bachelor suite in Brooklyn. Many choose to live with a handful of roommates to reduce that amount. A tiny four-bedroom apartment (that isn't very nice) can cost each person around $1,200. So coming home I began to think Vancouver’s rent cost wan't so bad. But then we have to look at the wage to rent ratio. New York City is the epicentre of the global market, with flagship stores, media headquarters, and a tremendous amount of other opportunities that do not exist here in Vancouver.
Rent here is not too bad yet, but it’s going up. We also have to distinguish between Vancouver proper and metro Vancouver, because if we get out to Surry, White Rock, or Langley, the ratio of housing prices to the average income is much more reasonable. I think the city of Vancouver sits at around 17th in Canada for average median income. I'll point out also that the studies showing Vancouver as the second most unaffordable city in the world are not accurate because that was only among the cities that were studied. Many other cities like Shanghai have a way bigger divide between the average housing price and the average income. They did include most of the cities in Canada, the US, and Europe within that study, so regardless of whether we are number two or number 40, we’re still at a place where the average working person can't afford to buy a home here they think is adequate. Any onlooker can say, “Well you should learn to put up with a tiny little place, and squeeze your kids into the closet.” But if the people say that’s not good enough, they will make the choice to leave, and the city suffers.
We could look at a theoretical issue where if all the doctors are choosing to leave, and you have your little resort community, what happens when one day you need a doctor? It’s a bit of an extreme example but it serves to a point.
You know, it’s actually not that extreme because I’ve heard of dual-doctor families--so that’s a dual income family with two doctor salaries who can't afford to buy a home on the West side of Vancouver. Housing is priced so that even doctors who are on the higher end of income earners are being pushed out of the market. Unless you have connections to someone who already owns in this market and is simply selling to pass off the equity to you, you're going to find yourself in a bit of a struggle. So certainly the children of the parents who already own in this market are getting a good boost.
A lot of this world's inequality stems from that very issue. Having the level of privilege that comes from connections or a wealthy family, sets you far ahead of the game, which gets into a deep canyon of other issues.
Yet it definitely is a factor. There is a built-in inequality factor there that is real, and should be addressed. For people to look at the housing situation in Vancouver and say, “It's not that bad, there are a lot of young people who can afford it.” But they have to realize that's only because they have rich parents. So should the opportunities in this city, or in this world, be restricted to people with rich parents? I don’t think many people would agree with that.
It’s great to raise awareness about that and move forward with keeping the discussion open, so I'm glad we covered it for others to read. I also want to talk to you about bike lanes; I know you commute almost everywhere on your own bike. There was a transit referendum earlier this year that sought more public funds for better transit, but it also opened up the conversation on traffic congestion, which ties into the bike lane debate. You were an advocate of a ‘Yes’ vote. What are your thoughts now that it didn't pass?
The city of Vancouver’s policy since the 1970s has been that the priority for transportation in the city should be in the order of: pedestrians, transit, cyclists, and then motorized, private, [personal] transportation is down the list. The reason for that is because the city can’t keep up with the infrastructure to service that many cars. There aren’t enough parking spaces, there isn’t enough road space, and there isn’t enough money to pay for all the health damage. So the focus has got to be on designing a city that makes alternatives possible, because life without a vehicle becomes very difficult if you live in many parts of the lower mainland: to still have a job, to get to your dialysis treatment, or to get your kids to their soccer game, the list goes on. So the bike lanes are just a small part of the larger issue of providing reliable, accessible, rapid transit. Bike lanes however, happen to be an issue that ignite a lot of passion. They're seen as an either/or thing where if you have a bike lane, then the cars are going to get further constrained. But there is a ton of evidence to show that this does not happen. There are minor delays from some of the bike lanes, but if you look for example at the traffic and incident rate on the Burrard bridge, none of that has changed since the bike lane was put in. In fact, they’re going to put another one in, and now, no one seems to mind as much.
When you build a city focused around cars, it diminishes the health of the community - not just in physical health, but also in social health. The more people get out of their cars to walk, bike, or take transit, the more social interaction takes place, which is a very good thing. The morale of the city goes up, and people feel more positively towards others.
Yes, there are tremendous benefits on that scale as well.
A lot of drivers feel anger towards bikers mostly out of anxiety or fear that they’re going to hit them. I personally feel much better if there is a meridian between cars and cyclists whether I’m biking or driving. What do you think about the width of bike lanes, and the separation of bike lanes from traffic?
The true standard of protected biking is a separated bike lane, not paint on the road, not a sharrow (these arrows meaning you share the space), but an actual, protected bike lane, which is supposed to be for all ages and abilities. With this, a cautious older person wouldn’t mind riding on it, young people could also go on it, and parents wouldn’t mind their little kids on it. That’s a bike lane. That’s what we have to have, that’s what will help more people get out to ride, that’s what will protect bike riders, and that’s what will make it really clear for drivers. They won’t have to worry about cyclists like they do when there’s one travelling right there in the car lane.
Why do those painted lanes seem to be the norm? Bicycle lanes that are squeezed right in between moving cars and parked cars are dangerous not only due to a moving car, but due to drivers opening their doors right into the lane. Is there no where else to put them?
It’s partly a compromise on the lack of road space, and it’s partly a compromise on the lack of political courage of the municipal decision makers in carving out more space for bicycles. In my view, with those lanes that are outside the parked cars, you could dramatically improve safety by simply shifting the lines so that the bike lane is down from the sidewalk before the parked cars. They’ve done it downtown on Richards street where they’re testing a section out there. The lane on Hornby street is like that; cyclists are riding in between the parked cars and the sidewalk. So if we made the cars park further over into the street, and then add in a cycle lane, to me, that's the next step. Another step would be on the major bike routes, to have more barricades where the cars can’t go through, and to reduce car traffic on those specific streets.
Are these suggestions being brought up or discussed within City Hall?
Yep, they know about all these ideas. They’re talking about them, and they’re always trying to measure the scope of their initiatives with what they think the public will accept. And there’s this very visceral, irrational, bizarre, but universal hate for bikes and bike lanes by a small, very politically powerful, noisy group of people.
Is this because individuals with that type of power are used to driving in their cars? Maybe they don’t picture themselves on a bike? I heard a segment on CBC where a researcher equated too much wealth with isolating oneself away from the public and their communities.
I’ve thought about this a lot, and I think there are a ton of reasons. The one that we’ve addressed is that people perceive that their trip by car would be made more difficult, longer, and slower because of cyclists. Another is certainly that they don’t think cyclists are as important as they are: they’re scruffy, younger people, and they’re losers because they’re on bikes so they probably can’t afford a car. Or maybe they resent the fact that some people are cycling and they can’t or won’t cycle because they aren’t physically able, or their job prevents them from doing it, or it messes their hair, or otherwise. A handful of people also think that the cyclists are getting a free ride, and they’re the ones who have to pay all the taxes that go to the cyclists, which is the complete opposite. In fact cyclists pay more taxes than car drivers do.
Can you explain that in more detail?
The average car is subsidized to the extent of about $7,000 a year, when you factor in the road maintenance, the road space that’s taken up to park that car, the policing costs, and all the health costs, which is the biggest one. All the asthma, premature deaths from collision, and other hospital costs from accidents - cyclists are paying for this too. These costs are absorbed by everyone. But when people get on bicycles, the noise pollution goes down, the air pollution disappears, the health costs go way down, the space for parking goes down, and the space for recreational parks goes up.
From the other side then, how do drivers perceive that cyclists are getting a free ride? Because drivers are paying for bike lane infrastructure?
Yes that, but also they are frustrated that cyclists don’t pay for licensing, they don’t pay gas taxes, and they don’t pay insurance. Like I say, it’s quite irrational.
You would hope to solve things with a factual discussion if everyone could keep their cool. My experience talking with individuals who are pro-war showed me that at some point you have to come from an angle of understanding their fears. Instead of arguing, you address the concerns and erase irrational fear by explaining facts - like you’ve just done here.
It would be great, and it's true that drivers have some legitimate concerns to address. These concerns are mostly about arrogant cyclists who give them the finger, shout and curse at them, spit on them, run red lights, and all kinds of other things. So sure, let’s crack down on those people because that’s not good behaviour, so let’s deal with that. But yes, it’s important to keep looking at the facts. And the facts show that around 90% of accidents or collisions [between drivers and cyclists] are caused by the drivers of cars. And in 100% of those collisions, the rider of the bicycle is injured, and the driver of the car is not. So talking about public safety, the facts weigh heavily in favour of the cyclists.
Absolutely. You wrote a book called The Urban Food Revolution that came out in 2011. The book touches on growing your own food, or a city growing its own food, rather than sourcing from international producers. Do you still garden yourself?
I do. We have a garden that produces food; I just harvested a bunch of garlic this morning and picked a bunch of plums yesterday. So I definitely try to grow some of my own food. The push behind the book was that there’s a crisis in the food system right now. The places where we get our food are delivering it in a way that is unsustainable: they’re using way too much water, they’re killing the soil, they’re killing the bees that we all depend on, they’re relying on huge shipments of fertilizer, tractors, not to mention the shipping of the food itself, and they’re not paying their workers adequately. So if we were to get more food locally, we would build up the local farm economy, we would have fresher food, we would know where our food came from, and we would likely have safer food. I know that’s not guaranteed but we could at least find out if it was farmed in an unsafe manner with poisons or not much easier. Another side to this is that when people are conscious of where their food comes from and try to gain some kind of control over what they eat, their lives changes in all sorts of other wonderful ways. They eat better, they learn more about food, they may end up growing something themselves, they rediscover biology, nutrition, the role of soil, they go to the farmer’s market, they meet and support their farmers, they interact with their neighbours if they’re in their community garden, and they get outside and exercise. So it’s a very big and virtuous circle when people start to source more of their food locally.
I've noticed an explosion of the local farmer’s markets in this city. Nearly every day of the summer you can make it to a Vancouver Farmer’s Market in one neighbourhood or another, whereas before it happened maybe once during a week. I feel there’s a cultural swing towards eating this way that is growing all the time. Have you also noticed a change since you wrote The Urban Food Revolution?
I heard Galen Weston who’s the head of Loblaws say that if you put a ‘Local’ food label on anything in a grocery store, sales go up by 40%. People like buying local food. Very few people can actually go out to a farm, and the number of people who can grow food in their yards is limited, so that explains the popularity of this label in superstores. But a lot of people that have lawns are tearing them up, or converting their one-dimensional gardens to food gardens, so there’s a ton of potential there. We can also help get people into rooftop gardens and community gardens as well.
We’re seeing a lot of these urban farms like Sole Foods Farms that act as food producing green spaces within a concrete jungle. The coordinators of these gardens grow the food in wooden plots right within the city, and you can purchase the produce to be delivered right to your door.
Those are definitely exploding in popularity: Community Supported Agriculture - CSAs. Which is great. There are also a lot of initiatives where they take one kind of fruit or vegetable into a classroom and then they discuss it in depth. They talk about where it comes from, what it is, how you cook it, and how you can eat it. There’s a program in Vancouver called Spuds in Tubs which I also wrote about in the book. There’s a certain type of potato that grows quite quickly and they take it to the schools where the kids have their own little pots. The kids plant it, measure it, watch it, and feed it - and when it comes up, they pick it and they learn how to cook it. What was interesting is that some kids have never eaten a potato before: coming from China, many of them don’t traditionally eat potatoes. So they learn that you can fry it, you can mash it, you can make potato salad, or you can shred it to make hash browns or potato pancakes. So they get educated on how to cook for themselves. Nowadays a lot of the food movement is about rediscovering cooking, which was taken away from us by the fast food industry. When you cook something, a lot more about eating changes. Michael Pollan who wrote a lot about this said that if you want to know the guide to healthy eating, you can actually eat anything you want, just so long as you cook it yourself. Because when you cook things, your whole perspective changes, your whole diet changes; everything changes.
My parents generation was a pivotal point. Often both of them were working professionals so the industry stepped in: ready-made meals and snack packs took off. There were two stressed out, busy individuals that were marketed to with an easy, quick, lunch option. Processed meats, crackers and cheese in a plastic package that they could toss into their kid’s backpack, and they trusted that it was healthy. So does it just take another 20 or 30 years to see the adverse health effects? Because today more and more parents are saying, “No thanks, we’re cooking for our kids; we’re not going to do the junk food thing, or the fast food thing.”
I wouldn't quite say that the parents of today are backing off of fast food - at all. Some people are at some times, but there’s still a big appetite for fast food. However, the fast food industry is responding to that. I don’t know if I mentioned this, but my son opened a fast food restaurant that serves nutritious fast food. They offer incredibly healthy options and it's called Smak. So not all food that is packaged is bad. It happens that a lot of pop-tart types of foods, or gummy snacks tend to be packaged, and they’re horrible, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that just because something’s in a package it’s going to be horrible. Of course we also have to consider that the whole act of packaging something up leaves us with all the petroleum in the packaging, and there are other issues surrounding that. So yes, why not just chop something up yourself. But a lot of parents don’t have time to do that.
I interviewed Danny Cheung who opened up Nourish Vancouver, which is also healthy, delicious 'fast' food. Almost all of his ingredients are sourced from the local Farmer’s Markets. It’s a ready-made cafe type where you can grab a bowl, salad, or a soup to go. So I agree that the food industry is responding to the local, whole, organic food movement.
This sounds very similar to Smak: they get their produce delivered from inner city farms like Sole Foods, so it’s fresh and made up every day. But certainly organic food has become more popular among adults raising children recently. Maybe this is because we now know more about how bad neonicotinoids are on the bee population, or pesticide residues on food can be, or hormones are in the meat we produce. It’s getting worse, and so people are realizing it and acting to make a change.
Yes, I wasn’t a proper professor, but I've taught at SFU. I was a fellow at the Centre for Dialogue there and I did some teaching for them. We did a semester on this same topic of food actually. There are so many issues around food policy and where we are headed at the moment, so that was encouraging to be able to discuss these things with students there.
I’ve been to a few talks at the Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue. Want to explain what the Centre for Dialogue is all about?
The Morris J. Wosk Centre is a building downtown where they hold some of the talks, and the Centre for Dialogue is the program; it has a number of different divisions within it. They run the Public Square which is SFU’s big public outreach initiative, and they also have fellows who come in and work on specific projects like I did. They've had Tony Penikett who is the Premier of the Yukon Territories, do a whole project dissecting Arctic sovereignty as part of that. They also work with the folks at City Studio bringing students into the city to redesign certain things with city staff. They really push forward a whole variety of initiatives.
SFU takes their catchphrase of 'engaging the community' seriously, which I think is incredible. How did you get involved with them and why was food policy the focus you chose?
When I left politics, they invited me to come and join them. I was told to pick a project and so I decided to do the Food in the City project which I did a whole series of seminars and events on as well. Leaving my position of city councillor, it was a project I wanted to take on at the time: to really look at food policy with the public. When I was at the city I was on the Food Policy Council, where I had introduced a motion to have 2,010 new food producing community garden plots by 2010 as an Olympic legacy, and we did it. The city of London copied that for their 2012 Olympics. So I always had an interest in Food Policy and I wanted to explore it a bit more having seen the many benefits that come with food growing in the city.
It’s great to see the results of that. Looking at the amount of farm-to-table style restaurants that have opened up all across Vancouver since the Olympics, it would be hard not to feel proud of that motion and those initiatives.
Well, many, many other people did a lot more on this than I did. But you're right, you pretty well have to have some local food connection in your restaurant these days. All the menus are boasting about their local food.
Would you ever consider going back into politics again?
I’m not interested in being in electoral politics anymore. When I watched the federal election campaigns, I thought about campaigning for mayor and what a hard, hard job that is. You’re working to exhaustion every day, and you’re stressed beyond belief, you’re never able to keep up with the issues, you have to raise money, you have to make friends with people who you may not share interests with, you have to walk up to strangers and introduce yourself, people are coming at you all the time in a positive way but many times in a negative way; it's a tough job. So I don’t miss that part of it at all. But there’s a whole other area of policy change that I still remain interested in, which is what got me into politics in the first place. There’s definitely a role for people outside of elected office to help, because no policy change comes into effect without someone coming up with an idea, testing it, refining it, getting political support for it, pushing it forward, and getting everyone ready for it. And then the politician just says, “Go”.
Looking at a person like Obama, or even Justin Trudeau, I do believe they're both good men: passionate, progressive, and who really want to change things. But after campaigning on everything they care about, once they’re in office, they find they're stuck. Contrary to what most people imagine, they’re not the sole decision makers. They now have to answer to their campaign funders among many others. So how do we address the issue that politicians might not be able to do what they thought they could during their campaign?
Well we get active, we pay attention, we speak up for things we care about, we vote, we support candidates we trust, and we donate to them. You can write letters to the editor - just become an engaged citizen. That’s at the root of it. And if there are enough people pushing in the right direction, and thinking about the public good rather than their own personal interests, then the public good will prevail. But if people are apathetic or they give up, they tune out or they leave it up to other people, then you get the political leaders with a team that don’t live up to what the public deserves.
To get people engaged with political issues, informing them of these other avenues to participate is a great start. But a lot of the apathy comes from our obsession with individualistic interests like self-promotion, or self-indulgence. As someone who has run a campaign, how do you suggest we get past that, to engage people who seem to pay little attention to anything past their social media accounts?
I think having more events helps. But certainly having more young people in politics they can relate to would help. Generally, I think it’s not up to the politicians; I think it’s up to the younger people themselves to wake up and pay attention and get involved. We can’t expect the politicians to bring it to them, or carry them to the issues. They’ve got to realize that a lot of things in their lives depend on somebody making a certain decision, and if they don’t like the decision they need to do more to change it, or try to influence it. One thing I discovered in municipal politics is that in local voting patterns, the older the people are the more likely they are to vote. This is because they have a bigger invested interest, and many of them have built a lifetime habit of doing so. When people have kids, or buy property, those two things trigger an interest in politics, because when you buy property, you get a tax bill. So they realize they’re now paying $3,000, $4,000, $10,000 whichever number it is each year to someone to do something. The question for them becomes, “Why are they taking my money and what are they doing with it?” But now that fewer people, and fewer younger people, are able to buy a property, along with young people waiting longer to have kids, that interest gets delayed. When you have kids you become concerned with schools, roads, safety, opportunity - all those things. So the fact that both of those influencers are being put off to later in life, it works against our youth. But for sure, those two factors heavily determine who gets involved in politics.
I often tell my friends who say they aren’t concerned with politics to take a look at their next pay-stub to see the amount that is being taken off for taxes. Usually it clicks in that they’re paying the people who are getting elected, every single paycheque. Elected officials are taking your money to do something for you, so you better pay attention.
Great. Those people have been elected to do the job for us, so we better give them some instructions.
Perfect advice to end on. Thanks so much Peter for sitting down with me, I'll look forward to reading more of your columns in BIV!
Okay great, well thank you so much Tracy.
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