Open Data Waterloo Region
There is now a website for Open Data Waterloo Region as well as a mailing list.
Open Data movements are about getting governments to open up their data sets in accessible electronic formats for citizens to use as they see fit. This allows people to render the data more widely understandable and readable, and to combine data in fruitful ways. I’ll leave further explanation as links: Three Laws of Open Data, 8 Principles of Open Government Data, and Creating Effective Open Government Portals.
In Ontario, Ottawa and London have strong Open Data movements. Here in Waterloo Region, despite the high-profile technology focus and the proliferation of Blackberries, we don’t yet have one. I’m hoping to fix that, perhaps in time to have some impact on the upcoming municipal elections.
Anyone who is interested in helping to build Open Data Waterloo Region — to advocate for and to use local government data to improve our community — is invited to an informal organizational meeting this Thursday in Waterloo. (See the Facebook event listing if you like.) Whether or not you can make it, you are welcome to join the Facebook group to show your support and stay updated on progress. Please direct people who may be interested to this post.
Thursday, September 9, 6pm – 8pm.
Huether Hotel – the BarleyWorks operations room (2nd floor of BarleyWorks)
59 King St N (at Princess St), Waterloo, ON
(Google Maps link. Note that getting there requires traversing several flights of stairs.)
Good ideas: National recycling standards
The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.
Recycling is “green” and it is mostly accepted as important. Most municipalities in Ontario seem to have recycling programs, but each municipality designs and implements its own program and standards. The situation appears similar across the country.
It seems to me about time that a set of national recycling standards was devised to make recycling more uniform, more effective, easier to widely implement, and more visible on a national scale. All my searches for such a proposal led to just one blog post suggesting that the U.S. make uniform its assortment of local recycling policies.
The problem with recycling in places like Waterloo Region is not that it’s not done, but that it’s done in so many different ways. Single-family dwellings and small apartment buildings set out blue bins for pick up by the region. The University of Waterloo and some larger apartment buildings set out the region’s blue wheeled containers, which cover most of what goes into the blue bins — if you can find them all in one place. Offices at UW’s campus might have tiny blue bins that presumably get sorted out somewhere by someone; some places have additional bins specifically for white paper. Workplaces and other apartment buildings may have recycling provided through a private company with different standards for what gets recycled and how it gets sorted — if they recycle at all. Restaurants usually don’t provide any means for recycling, or may provide some place to presumably recycle glass and plastic bottles; but what about paper packaging or other kinds of plastic?
Batteries get collected at sporadic locations, if they get collected at all. Much of the recycling facilities remains esoteric — such as the fact that styrofoam is indeed accepted, if you drive to the landfill. There are no areas accessible without a car where hazardous materials may be disposed of, and no publicized ways to have them picked up.
Both Kitchener and Waterloo have been installing Molok containers on streets in pairs: one for garbage and one for recycling. But what kind of recycling? And why isn’t the signage consistent with the Region’s recycling program? How can I have confidence that it won’t just end up being tossed?
That’s just within Waterloo Region, but what if I go over to Guelph? They’ve got a completely different recycling policy. Same thing for Toronto, or Hamilton, or London. Each municipality has its own recycling policy with its own idiosyncrasies about what is kosher and what isn’t. Each municipality expends individual effort to develop a coherent recycling program and informational material so that its residents can recycle. And in each, there are ambiguous items that may be recyclable but that a resident can’t easily determine as such — and some of these unnecessarily clutter the recycling stream, or unnecessarily end up in the landfill; the only authoritative source for whether something is recyclable is the municipal recycling website, whatever its quality. Prior experience is of little use.
It should be apparent why I am suggesting a national recycling policy for Canada. Recycling is complicated, but it does not have to be so. A comprehensive but simple system that is universal would go a long way toward making recycling culturally understandable. In the areas with good recycling programs it would get rid of the discrepancies between home and work and street. In the areas with bad ones, it would substantially increase the diversion rate. With a national recycling policy there would be a strong marketing and branding capability for it that would likely go far beyond the means of any individual municipality.
A national standard would make recycling more corporate-friendly, in that companies could have their pick of recycling containers, providers perhaps, and even “solutions” that all provide the same national recycling branding and standards. This applies to municipalities as well.
Under such a system the government could force all non-obvious packaging and materials to unambiguously be labelled in concert with the national recycling standards. Anything that is recyclable would have a clear path to a recycle bin anywhere in the country. Moreover, the program could be partially funded using a tax on non-recyclable material and packaging.
The one challenge that comes to my mind is how to foster innovation in recycling practices in such a system. Municipalities should be allowed — encouraged, in fact — to provide additional facilities beyond the requirements. But once they substitute their independent recycling department for something analogous to a franchise, that may prove difficult to motivate. The innovation would probably need to come from non-profits and the national recycling entity itself.
Good ideas: Permeable pavement
Most pavement is impermeable to water. As a result, paved surfaces need to be designed to funnel water into drains, and drainage and sewer systems need to be designed for the high capacity necessary to deal with runoff from the huge number of paved surfaces in our cities. Instead of replenishing groundwater, precipitation is redirected to rivers and lakes. Runoff from roads carries with it automotive pollution, which is then concentrated in downstream bodies of water.
Various technologies are coming into use, however, for pavement that is permeable to water. Porous asphalt and pervious concrete are fairly new techniques, so they are still being developed and improved. The main difficulties include weight resistance and longevity, as well as cold climate installation. And, of course, it’s more expensive to install (particularly for cold climates), though it may be cheaper than conventional pavement if considered together with the costs of storm-water management.
What’s the point? First off, urban runoff is reduced, and with it pollution and the need for large and extensive drainage systems. But there are other benefits that I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere. On impervious road surfaces drainage can work poorly, leading to the sometimes hazardous accumulation of water, which could be averted by permeable pavement. Likewise, it can prevent the ubiquitous puddles that form in depressions on sidewalks and paths. This pavement can also eliminate the need for drainage grates that are often encountered on bike lanes, which can be a hazard and nuisance to cyclists. If pervious concrete is used, it has the added advantage of reflecting more sunlight than asphalt, which can have a significant mitigating effect on climate change.
The technology is promising and I am surprised that the Region of Waterloo hasn’t yet taken up the idea. The Region should investigate permeable pavement and at least pilot the technology. They could do worse than paving the path through Waterloo Park as a test.
Bold lines: Guaranteed high-frequency bus routes
I’ve written before about the complexities and uncertainties of bus systems. Here I outline one simple way to make transit networks more accessible to riders and would-be riders: guaranteed high-frequency routes. Creating such routes and marking them in bold on maps makes clear what portion of a system is accessible without a schedule, making possible spontaneous trips and more natural transit use.
Lines should be marked in bold on route maps if they run (for example):
- At least every 10 minutes Monday through Saturday from 6 am to 10 pm and Sundays and holidays from 8 am to 8 pm;
- At least every 30 minutes the rest of the time.
Express routes should be clearly delineated from other routes on the same corridor. Branching is okay, but only sections of a line meeting the frequency criteria may be marked in bold. Streetcar lines, if any, should meet bold line standards, perhaps being drawn in a separate color for clarity. Maps should list the service frequency for bold lines, and bus stops along bold routes should clearly indicate their status as such.
Currently there is not a single Grand River Transit route that qualifies. Route 7 mainline is pretty close to bold between King & Ottawa and King & University, but lacks night service. On University between Westmount and Weber, routes 8 and 12 could together be close as well.
Bus routes necessitating a schedule are only accessible to committed bus riders, and are unfriendly to casual users. A guaranteed high frequency on selected routes makes those lines easier and more pleasant to use for the choice rider as well as for the regular transit user. Minimum nightly service assures users that they will not be stranded, which encourages use during all hours.
Transit systems without bold lines should try implementing a small network of them. And systems that already have lines that qualify should be making a big deal of it. Simplified pocket-size maps ought to be freely available to show the transit-novice and the transit-averse which routes are easy to use.
It is difficult for low frequency service to spur enough ridership to “justify” high frequency service; it’s an uphill battle of incremental service increases in tandem with small ridership increases (and sporadic service cuts for good measure). Bold lines allow a transit network to pull itself up by the bootstraps through strategic allocation of resources into a network structure that is qualitatively different and more accessible to riders.
Good ideas: Hybrid garbage trucks
Hybrid buses seem to be all the rage these days in many cities — and including Grand River Transit. If hybrid buses make sense, then why are there no hybrid garbage trucks?
Especially when operating suburban-type routes, garbage and recycling trucks make very frequent stops. This means they lose quite a lot of energy to braking, which could and should be recaptured. From each of their frequent stops, they have to accelerate their massive weight — and here an electric motor would do a much better job than a diesel one, I would think.
As with buses, the hybrid drive should make the diesel engine last longer and of course improve fuel use. In addition, there is the significant external benefit of lower diesel emissions and, especially, less noise. Garbage trucks struggling to accelerate with their diesels is a truly awful sound in the mornings.
So hybrid power makes sense for garbage trucks at least as much as it does for buses. Why aren’t they on the roads, then? My uninformed guess is that it has to do with them being owned and operated by private companies as opposed to the public transit operators that buy hybrid buses. GRT’s hybrid buses cost around 50% more than the regular ones, and that probably has something to do with it as well.
Upon investigation: within the last year or two such trucks have appeared, not just in hybrid electric form, but also as hydraulic hybrids. The industry group Calstart has a Hybrid Truck Users Forum that is working on hybrid refuse trucks, and impending U.S. government emissions standards seem to be pushing manufacturers in this direction. New York City is trying out a few competing versions, and will probably set the example for others. With increased demand, competition and scale will drive down costs, and I suspect hybrid garbage trucks will become the norm for new purchases within a couple of years.
Good ideas: Lawn-mowing bicycle
Somewhere along Highway 8 between Cambridge and Hamilton, I thought I glimpsed a weird-looking old tricycle / lawn-mower. Using a bicycle to make it easier to mow with a reel mower seemed like a terrific idea. To my surprise I found that such a thing appears to have never been mass-produced. What I did find, however, was a gallery of such bicycle lawn mowers at TreeHugger. If you are handy then these are apparently not too difficult to construct.
Lawn mowers (and their small-engine ilk) are the sources of some of the most annoying but ubiquitous sounds in all places with lawns, so I am all for people replacing them with quieter bicycle mowers — or even just regular reel mowers. Of course, they also don’t stink up the neighborhood, and I suspect they’re probably a fair bit safer.