There comes a time in the life-span of cities when the need for change builds to an undeniable imperative. This often occurs after a prolonged period of growth that has exposed outdated planning documents and revealed policies that favored sprawl over density and the status quo over bold new visions.
Acknowledging this imbalance means rethinking what it means to plan a livable, sustainable and socially-just city.
It’s arguable whether the City of Courtenay’s decade-plus growth spurt is over or continuing. But there is no doubt that the new city council and municipal staff intend to take on the difficult role of change agents.
Over the next two years, the city has no less than nine major plans under review.
Earlier this year, councillors approved two first-time initiatives, a Cycling Network Plan and an Urban Forest Strategy. In September, they will make final adjustments to the city’s draft Transportation Master Plan, which began development in the fall of 2017.
The city’s engineering group is also currently working on an Integrated Rainwater Management Plan. They have partnered with the University of Waterloo and consultants Urban Systems to create Courtenay-specific climate-resilient design parameters for sea-level rise projections.
Also coming: an update to the city’s 1980s-vintage Subdivision and Development Servicing Bylaw, continuing work on Municipal Natural Assets Management policies and Parks and Recreation Master Plan that should also go to City Council for adoption this fall.
All of these new, revised or updated planning documents will feed into and shape a major update to the Big Kahuna of municipal planning: Courtenay’s 15-year-old Official Community Plan. Staff began work on that project this week.
Ryan O’Grady, the city’s director of engineering services, told Decafnation that the timing for all of these projects couldn’t be better.
“The goal of these plans is to represent the progressive shifts which have been evident in the City of Courtenay, and throughout the Comox Valley, O’Grady told Decafnation. “Leveraging the expertise of our stakeholders, while facilitating regional collaboration, is a priority for the Engineering Services group. This is something we are striving to achieve in all of our initiatives, ranging from this transportation work to our climate change adaptation and infrastructure resiliency work. Considering innovative alternatives in parallel with the traditional approach of conventional engineered infrastructure is an exciting transition, and one which aligns with Council’s Strategic Priorities.”
Next up: Transportation
The next major planning document City Council will review and update is the Transportation Master Plan. It was last updated in 2014.
The new plan takes a different perspective toward addressing Courtenay traffic issues than previous plans. It focuses more heavily on providing a wide range of alternatives to moving around the community in private vehicles. And it imagines everything from electric to autonomous vehicles.
Courtenay Councillor David Frisch said he’s “excited” to see Courtenay residents supporting multimodal transportation methods, like walking and cycling, mobility scooters and transit.
“I believe this is in step with peoples commitments to healthier living, environmental stewardship, and strong economic growth… All of which are supported by multimodal transportation,” he told Decafnation.
But one thing you will not find in the new draft transportation plan is a recommendation for a third crossing of the Courtenay River.
A previous iteration of the transportation plan released last spring showed a third crossing cutting through the Courtenay Airpark at 21st Street and landing in Hollyhock Marsh, a protected part of the estuary and integral to Project Watershed’s Kus-kus-sum restoration.
That caused a public uproar on several fronts prior to last fall’s municipal elections. The previous City Council responded by directing staff and its transportation consultants, Urban Systems, not to consider a third crossing in future versions of the plan.
What you will find in the new draft plan are several keywords that signal a philosophical shift in transportation planning. These are terms — active transportation, multi-modal, connectivity, accessibility and sustainability — that have become synonymous with the world’s most livable cities.
Even the name of the plan, Connecting Courtenay, suggests a focus that goes beyond roads, stop lights and intersections.
The draft plan embraces these concepts with a shift in priorities toward active transportation — walking and cycling — and toward multi-modal forms of transportation — bike and car sharing, transit and electric vehicles.
“An important aspect of the TMP (Transportation Master Plan) is the recognition that we cannot move people around effectively and efficiently without providing better facilities for pedestrians and cyclists while addressing increased vehicle traffic,” Councillor Melanie McCollum told Decafnation. “The TMP identifies where investments need to be made in the medium and long term to move toward the target of 30 percent sustainable travel modes.”
McCollum said the sustainable travel modes target is approximately double the current figure in Courtenay.
Councillor Wendy Morin says that rather than adding another expensive bridge in the near future, the city must look at other ways to mitigate traffic.
“I’d like to see us focusing on multi-modal infrastructure and promoting pedestrian-friendly corridors in the downtown core, and connecting neighbourhoods,” she told Decafnation. “I’ve received feedback that folks would use less vehicle transportation in downtown and peripheral areas if safety concerns were addressed.”
Morin is advocating for a Sixth Street pedestrian bridge with access for cyclists, but with a focus on pedestrians.
“I’d like to see these pedestrian routes link into trail and park systems as well as connect with river-way access,” she said.
The draft plan is based on a 20-year vision. It includes individual plans for walking, cycling, transit infrastructure, emerging technologies and new mobility issues.
Saving tax dollars
One of the most significant philosophical shifts in the draft transportation plan recognizes that spending more now on less expensive alternate modes of transportation could defer and even eliminate spending on pricier infrastructure.
“Major infrastructure … may be deferred if investments in non-automobile modes of transportation and changes in land use patterns are successful in limiting vehicle volume growth,” the plan states.
The draft plan projects a cost of $145.7 million over a 20- to 25-year implementation period, and almost three-quarters of that total will be spent on streets. New and widened major corridors and connections will cost $94.2 million and and $13.3 million on other roadway projects.
Councillor David Frisch advocates for improved cycling options within the City of Courtenay
While the plan includes major projects for walking, cycling, transit and emerging technologies, they add up to only 26 percent of the total estimated cost, while a few small projects involving streets consume 73.8 percent.
These numbers may change in the final document to City Council. Staff and consultants are considering community input received during the draft review process that could affect the total cost estimate and individual project allocations.
Councillor David Frisch says that points out the value of investing in alternate methods of moving people around the community.
“It is also encouraging to see how affordable pedestrian and cycling infrastructure is compared to infrastructure for car travel,” Frisch told Decafnation. “It is worth noting that the 25-year infrastructure costs for people to walk and ride bikes or scooters is $10M & $24M compared to $100M for people to travel more by car.
“By encouraging our generation to shift to healthier modes of travel, we are saving taxpayers millions of dollars on infrastructure projects, health care costs, and environmental costs … it’s a win-win-win scenario!” he said.
Schools and transportation
The plan reports that 83 percent of commute trips to work or school are made by private vehicle.
Councillor Will Cole-Hamilton notes that all of the Comox Valley’s secondary schools are located on the east side of the river, and that the data shows peak congestion on the 17th Street bridge occurs around the time schools finish for the day.
“Focusing on student needs — sidewalks to schools, making cycling to schools safer, lobbying to coordinate transit routes and times to match school bell times– would not only provide our youth with more safe and healthy options each day, but also help to reduce congestion on our roads and bridges,” he told Decafnation.
Cole-Hamilton hopes the city would work with School District 71 to restart the Safer to Schools program, which promoted walking and cycling among school-aged children.
Earlier this summer, former school trustee Cliff Boldt proposed a local area plan for west Courtenay that included locating a secondary school there. It’s a topic that might arise during revisions to the city’s Official Community Plan.
Cycling Network Plan
Although City Council approved a separate Cycling Network Plan in February, it is being incorporated and will be reviewed as part of the Master Transportation Plan. It got out ahead of the larger plan to take advantage of funding opportunities.
O’Grady said grants for urban cycling projects appeared in late 2018 that required a cycling plan for eligibility. The Comox Valley Cycling Coalition helped the city create a cycling plan that council approved by the grant application deadline.
The city received $228,000 for two cycling projects to construct north-south bicycle lanes on both the west side (Fitzgerald Avenue) and the east side (Hobson Connector).
This draft transportation plan takes on a “realistic” 20-year time frame, according to O’Grady. The future beyond that is too uncertain he said, considering today’s fast-moving technologies toward driverless cars and even visions of car-free urban centers.
During that time period, the plan advises the city to factor in multi-modal transportation designs into every future infrastructure project.
Aligning transportation plan objectives with utility and other projects constitutes better municipal asset management, and ensures more sustainable delivery of city services.
“It’s a holistic approach,” O’Grady said.
Official Community Plan
A municipality’s OCP is a long-term visionary document that guides the city’s land uses, establishes growth nodes and determines zoning. For the city, it’s a document comparable to the Comox Valley Regional District’s Regional Growth Strategy.
Having updated existing planning documents and completed new ones will help the public, city staff and elected officials shape a revised OCP over the next couple of years. The last meaningful update of the city’s OCP was done in 2005, although there have been several subsequent amendents.
Lisa Butler, Courtenay’s manager of engineering strategy, emphasized the importance and interrelationship of the OCP to other planning documents.
“Population growth projections used to inform traffic modeling in the draft 2019 transportation plan came from the current OCP,” she said. “With all of these plans coming together, it’s an exciting time for the city.”
O’Grady said staff will present the draft Transportation Master Plan to a committee of the whole meeting of City Council on Sept. 30.