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Uncategorized

My Top 3 Winnipeg Mayoral Election Issues

I spent more of my long weekend than intended summarizing Winnipeg’s Mayoral candidates’ platforms for an epic tweet thread.

This got me thinking about what the most important issues to me personally.

Fund Winter

This city is very bad at winter!

Last year especially was an epic disaster of unplowed sidewalks and streets. Forget winter biking, winter walking is often impossible.

We’ve been at this for nearly 150years we should be better at this.

Some ideas:

  • For starters dump as much money as physically possible into the snow clearing/winter maintenance budget!
  • Plow sidewalks and bike lanes at the same time as the streets that border them. If not sooner.
  • Investigate grooming bike paths instead of plowing them (like the do in Finland).
  • Mandate Edmonton’s Winter City Design guidelines.
  • Fine contractors who use active transport to dump snow. Set aggressive timelines in their contracts and fine them when they fail to meet them.

Defund Cars

Cars have their place in modern cities, I am probably more pro-car than the average subscriber to Not Just Bikes.

But it’s becoming exceedingly clear that North American car-centric urban design was a giant mistake! We need to reverse course before it’s too late.

Some ideas:

  • Make it more expensive and inconvenient to drive: eliminate free parking, slow streets to a reasonable level, implement traffic calming measure.
  • Eliminate parking minimums.
  • Disincentivize surface parking lots.
  • Make public transit free.
  • Invest heavily in bike infrastructure.

Defund The Police

It’s becoming incredibly obvious that the current incarnation of the police are not very good at stopping or solving crime. And they just seem to eat up massive amounts of city budgets (with helicopters and robot dogs) for no apparent reason.

I don’t have specific ideas on this one, it’s a difficult problem and the city governments have limited ability to make changes without provincial help.

BTW if you think defunding the police is wacky left-wing idea, just remember that we wouldn’t have paramedics if City of Pittsburgh hasn’t allowed their police to be defunded.

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Uncategorized

WordPress Websites Now Only $499

Early this week Automattic launched “Built by WordPress.com Express,” an awkwardly named “webdesign” service.

Here’s the sales video:

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The tagline “Real sites, built by real people.” is a good one. It acknowledges that most people who need a website are not web designers. It positions their service as an alternative the steep learning curve to doing-it-yourself (with WordPress or elsewhere).

It feels a little like WordPress VIP lite (very lite!). In fact, I’m fairly certain some of the screenshots in the video are from VIP clients.

Reading between the lines, the service seems to be a layout service. You pick a pre-existing theme, provide the content and US$500 and then they’ll “do it for you.”

This is bad on so many levels! (well at least 4 I can think of off the top of my head)

Easy To Replicate

Some are speculating that this service is a desperate attempt to increase profitability for an upcoming IPO. I find this plausible.

Unfortunately, if this service proves to be a hit, is incredibly easy for Elementor, Wix, Squaresquares, etc to replicate. Set up a network of “experts” poached from fivrr and some minimal organization to manage the workflow.

Whether A8C’s competitors could pull it off as well with good templates, solutions that work and great support is almost besides the point. This segment of the market is just looking for a solution to the basic problem of “I need a website.”

Hard to Support

A $500 WP Express customer is going to expect the same level of support as a $500,000 WP VIP customer. Period. If the goal is raising profit, the support costs are sure to challenge that goal.

Solves Half The Problem

The design — as in the visual appearance — is only half the problem you need to solve when building a website. Maybe even less than half in many cause.

A beautiful website is useless without a cohesive content strategy. Professionally written, thoughtful content will always give you a leg up on the competition… the competition who whipped together a website for $500 without a second thought.

The marketing copy on the sales page strongly implies that your content is unimportant. Providing content is simply the 3rd item on a 5-item list, equal weight to providing your business address and sitting back and relaxing.

oof.

Devaules WordPress

This is the biggest problem.

The popularity of WordPress is built on the hard work and goodwill of freelancers. Passionate people who’ve spent the past 2 decades spreading the Gospel of Matt.

Any of these freelancers will tell how hard it can be to convince a potential client that their website is worth more than approximately $500. Imagine how much harder this becomes when wordpress.com is setting the going rate at $500! Why would they ever hire you?

To quote @briancoords on twitter “a massive private company and also the sole entity allowed to commercially profit off the WordPress trademark devaluing WordPress could be harmful for anyone trying to earn a living anywhere at any price point.”

Not to mention that the templates themselves are kind of ugly.

This feels like a gut punch.

I’m always rooting for Automattic. But I hope this goes nowhere fast and we never hear about it every again.

Categories
Culture

Visiting A Superpower that is also a Failed State

Last week I took an extended weekend off to drive down to the Twin Cities with my family, for the first time in almost exactly 3 years. Ever since we started going down there for punk shows (long before Odessa and I were married) we have made it a habit to trek down at least once per year.

The title of this post is a reference to Chuck Klosterman’s latest book “The Nineties” which we listened on the way there and back. Klosterman audiobooks have become as much of a tradition as the trip itself. Something about the combination of his comic-book-guy-from-the-simpsons delivery plus the fact that we are literally driving through the setting of some of his anecdotes is just so perfect.

In all seriousness though, between the events of January 6th, the presidency preceding it, and the George Floyd protests in the Twin Cities I was bracing for the worst. I expected to arrive in a country where my affiliations would be questioned every time I wanted to use a restroom, a political zealot yelling on every street corner and just general chaos.

But for the most part, everything was normal, like it had been previous years.

So Many Flavours of Mountain Dew

For many Canadians, trips across the border are a bit like visiting a giant Theme Park of Capitalism or maybe walking into r/latestagecapitalism. We simultaneous gawk at the sheer audacity of all the different things we can buy while buying as many of the things as we can possibly buy.

The varieties of Mountain Dew are a prime example a running joke even. [Up in these parts we typically have 3 flavours of Mountain Dew: regular, diet and a rotating cast of alternates (code red, blue shock, that new black one, etc)]

Well I’m happy(?) to report that the state of the world has not affected the junk food shelf. Not only that but the US consumerist machine has managed to find dozens of flavours of everything! Doritos, caned coffee, beef jerky, beyond meat jerky, skittles… you get the picture.

On Apple Pay and Tap

A quick note on Apple Pay.

I was pleasantly surprised that tap payment was available literally everywhere. This was not at all the case 3 years ago — chip&PIN was not even readily available.

That said most cashiers acted like I was one of the first people they’d ever seen actually using my phone to pay.

Economic Indicators

A Walmart sandwichboard style sign advertising service jobs starting at $16/hr and stocking jobs starting at $18/hr. It's located inside a Walmart store.

In the face of a mostly normal visit, the effects of inflation seemed a lot more real down there. Even though the inflation rate is only about 1% higher.

For one, nothing is cheap anymore, especially food. Even though the relatively exchange rates have remain roughly the same (30%, ±5%) for the 20 odd years I’ve been visiting The States you could always count on cheap fast food. Even after currency exchange.

And I’m not really sure any of the clothes and other stuff we bought is significantly cheaper like it used to be. Ohdessa did some on-the-fly comparison shopping vs the Canadian websites and often found similar to cheaper pricing on the .ca.

I bought new shoes out of compulsion.

Actually, gas is still cheap. About CA$0.30/L less (US$0.92/gal).

The most striking economic indicator was the WE’RE HIRING signs literally everywhere! The sign to the left is from a Walmart in Fergus Falls, North Dakota — a state with a $7.25 minimum wage. A Taco Bell in Fargo, ND was advertising a $500 signing bonus! $1500 bonus to start on as a mall cop at the Mall of America (salary not listed).

Not coincidentally, the McDonalds we visited that was not boasting of above minimum wage was so short staffed that the shift manager apologized about the wait to every single customer.

[N.B. Some of these posting might be total compensation (including things like healthcare) but are likely to still be multiples of the minimum wage.]

Art

Two teenagers and their mother surrounding a table, listening to audio recording on headphones. They are in an art gallery with art pieces on the walls behind them.

To counter-balance the kind of icky consumer tourism aspect of these trips, we always try to hit up some art galleries. The Twin Cities have a great art scene!

We were able to check out Piotr Szyhalski’s COVID-19: Labor Camp Report. I am not good at describing art so I will just say that this is the most incredible art exhibit I have ever seen. The dystopian posters, the performance, the orchestra. Such amaze!

PS

The Fairfield Inn by Marriott in Mendota Heights, Minnesota kinda sucks.

Categories
Winnipeg

On Winnipeg Urban Planning

Late last week I wrote the following tweet that generated quite a bit of conversation:

https://twitter.com/ohryan/status/1545172902097698820

Unfortunately, the original intent of my tweet was partially lost in the conversation. So I thought I’d clarify here on my blog.

The two main knee-jerk reactions that I had upon visiting Sage Creek were essentially:

1. It is (a) so far away from the city centre (b) that it should not be part of Winnipeg.
2. “Why are we still building suburbs like this?!”

For those of you from out of town, Sage Creek is one of the most recent suburban developments in Winnipeg. It doesn’t seem to have a Wikipedia entry so here is a link to the developer’s sales page.

It’s Really Far Away

My route to Sage Creek took me down to the very far edge of Fermor Ave and then south down Lagimodiere Blvd past Bishop Grandin Blvd. Most of this drive was completely desolate, I passed a “power centre” style retail development, The Royal Canadian Mint and a bunch of empty nothingness. Most Winnipeggers would consider this drive to have already taken them “out of town” but low and behold, you take a left turn on Sage Creek Blvd and there you are heading into a self contained “Qualico Community.”

My initial reaction was just a kneejerk to my boring drive, so let’s take a quick look at the numbers.

I’ll use the intersection of Sage Creek Blvd & Edward Turner Dr as the “centre” of Sage Creek – since this appears to be the midpoint of housing development and compare this to Portage & Main – the defacto (and literal?) centre of Winnipeg.

The straight-line distance is 10.27km. For comparison, the west Perimeter Hwy bordering the city is only 13.15km from Portage & Main. The northern perimeter is only 10.47km. East is 12.82km.

Sage Creek is demonstrably on the edge of the city.

A screenshot of a google map of Winnipeg showing a ruler measuring the distance between Portage & Main and Sage Creek
Straight Line Distance to Sage Creek

For comparison, by car it’s 12.8km.

A screenshot of a Google Map showing driving directions from Sage Creek to Portage & Main, in Winnipeg, Manitoba
The Drive From Sage Creek

At 13.1km, the ideal bike ride is slightly longer than by car. I suspect this is a fairly pleasant bike ride as it runs through some nice parks and quiet streets. But TBH keeping track of all those turns would be challenging and I would be surprised if Winnipeg has the way-finding to simplify this route.

FWIW if these suburbs are going to exist, I would love to see prioritizing bike freeways over car infrastructure and SE Winnipeg would be a good place to start (but that’s a topic for another post).

A screenshot of a Google Map showing cycling directions from Sage Creek to Portage & Main, in Winnipeg, Manitoba
Cycling Distance From Sage Creek

“But it’s quick!”

A few people in my Twitter replies mentioned that the distance doesn’t matter because the drive is quick.

This is entirely missing the point.

First, it means that you absolutely need a car to leave your neighbourhood.

Second, you’re still driving further, burning more gas, wasting money and needlessly polluting.

Third, supporting infrastructure on the fringes of the city is completely unsustainable.

It shouldn’t be part of Winnipeg

If you’ve ever played Sim City 2000, you should have a pretty good sense of just way this suburb is unsustainable. In the game, every segment of water/waste pipe, power line and road costs $10 (plus upkeep). If you build a mini-town on the edge of your simulated city you end up running out of money very quickly! Often before you even have a chance to build schools or provide fire and police services.

Now, the infrastructure for Sage Creek almost certainly isn’t being piped directly from Portage & Main, it’s not technically as isolated as my Sim City losing strategy. The pipes and power are likely connected to Island Lakes (the suburb directly to the west of Sage Creek).

But get a load of this satellite picture:

A Satellite Image of Island Lakes and Sage Creek
A Satellite Image of Island Lakes and Sage Creek

It doesn’t look like Qualico have really taking advantage of their proximity to Island Lakes. They haven’t built a bunch of connecting paths, parks or streets. They haven’t packed the dense developments right next to the existing infrastructure for maximum efficiency. It’s mainly unused land, parking lots and parks.

It’s fine for you

Many people on Twitter assumed that I was “slagging” Sage Creek.

This was not my intent. I understand that people like living in developments like Sage Creek. My general attitude is “that’s fine for you.”

The problem is – as illustrated in Sim City 2000 – every new low density development decreases the city’s ability to provide services efficiently.

Take a look at the bus routes as an example.

A screenshot of a Google Map showing bus directions from Sage Creek to Portage & Main, in Winnipeg, Manitoba
Bus directions from Sage Creek

A minimum of 67 minutes! If public transit was operating efficiently, this travel time should be in the same ballpark is the travel by car. Not 3.5x!

But with Winnipeg’s dozens of suburbs on the sprawled out on the periphery this becomes an impossible problem to try to solve efficiently.

Don’t ask me to subsidize it

Let’s take a quick look at some generalized math.

Since all parts of the city expect similar levels of city services and all parts of the city pay similar property taxes, the basic math of it is that higher density areas subsidize lower density areas.

If each suburb was its own town, they would each have their own tax rates that make sense for their specific concerns.

They could still benefit from city services if they chose to but the big difference would be that The City could make a profit from those agreements.

Rather than each suburb stretching the city’s budgets or making things like efficient transit service totally impossible. Suburbs could be a profit centre!

It’ll be the centre of town soon enough

A few replies on Twitter suggested that building suburbs on the edge of town is how we’ve always done it and after a few decades the city will fill in around it.

But this is just totally backwards! Cities should be built from the inside out. Again, if this is not obvious play some Sim City 2000.

Why Are We Still Approving Car-Centric Suburbs?

A screenshot of a Google search ad for Sage creek. The title reads "South Winnipeg's Sage Creek - Live in Sage Creek". The body reads "A completely walkable new community with a variety of homes for all lifestyles. Learn more. Contemporary design, lasting materials & the highest construction standards. Come visit! Over 9Km of Trails. Home Styles for All. Vibrant &..."
Qaulico’s Ad For Sage Creek

I’m quite uncertain how Qualico came to the conclusion that their new community is “completely walkable.” It’s got to be a joke, right?

Wikipedia defines walkability as:

…a term for planning concepts best understood by the mixed-use of amenities in high-density neighborhoods where people can access said amenities by foot. It is based on the idea that urban spaces should be more than just transport corridors designed for maximum vehicle throughput. Instead, it should be relatively complete livable spaces that serve a variety of uses, users, and transportation modes and reduce the need for cars for travel.

Walkability – Wikipedia

Sage Creek simply does not have any mixed-use, period. The retail is a good distances away from the apartments and both are segregated from the expensive single-family homes by wide parkland.

A more generous (and perhaps more realistic in the North American context) definition of “walkability” might be the idea of a “15-minute city.” i.e. the idea that nothing should be more than 15 minutes away (without a car).

But here again Sage Creek fails. Since they’ve positioned the retail sector at the entrance of the development almost none of the single-family housing is within a 15 minute walk (I’ve used the Tim Hortons in this calculation).

A screenshot of walkscore.com highlighting the area within Sage Creek that can reach the Tim Hortons within a 15 minute walk.
From Walkscore.com

The Biggest Sin of Them All!

If that wasn’t bad enough, Qualico has the audacity to call this neighbourhood “walkable” without even providing sidewalks to walk on!!

As you can see from the City of Winnipeg’s sidewalk clearing map, they have only built sidewalks on the main thoroughfares. This is absolutely not a way to encourage walking!

A screenshot of the City of Winnipeg's sidewalk snow clearing priority map for Sage Creek.
Side snow clearing priority

I do not understand why city hall continues to approve this garbage.

In all seriousness, by “walkable” I think Qualico actually means “there are parks where you can walk your dog only a 2 minute drive away!” Qualico certainly is not committed to walkability in any common sense of the word.

But we’ve always done it this way

A few commentors on Twitter mentioned that Sage Creek is just like many other suburbs in Winnipeg and that I shouldn’t be singling them out.

I actually agree. All of the post WWII suburbs are pretty terrible.

In Conclusion

City hall needs to do better!

We can bite bullet and stop approving new developments. They’re a ponzi scheme that has to end, the sooner we rip of the band-aid the better.

We can retrofit existing neighbourhoods with sidewalks and infill housing. We’re already doing a decent job on the latter. I would like to see a candidate in this upcoming election suggest building sidewalks. Hell, we could just steal Edmonton’s 15-minute city playbook, it seems like a good one.

Oh and we should probably at least consider breaking up Unicity before it’s too late.

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Uncategorized

“So I bought a PHEV…” Update

Seven months ago I wrote a blog post with some of my initial thoughts and reasoning behind buying a Hyundai Santa Fe PHEV. I have been keeping detailed fuel economy records since December 8th, in attempt to quantify and understand its gasoline usage over time.

A spreadsheet with fuel economy data from December 8, 2021 to May 23, 2022. 

The highest reading is highlighted in red: 13.4L/100km, recorded on January 24th, 2022.

The lowest reading is highlighted in gree: 2.5L/100km, recorded on May 20, 2022.
All My Data To Date

Above is the screenshot of my spreadsheet. Due to COVID travel restrictions and continued work from home, the majority of this data is running errands inside the city. Two exceptions being two trips to Riding Mountain Nation Park, at the end of December and the weekend of the 20th.

During the winter months, I was having mixed feelings about my decision. As things have warmed up, I’m getting more optimistic.

Mysterious Algorithm

The algorithm that determines when to engage the gasoline engine is confounding.

Below -20C the engine always engages, in fact the system displays a warning message informing you that it’s too cold to drive in electric mode. I suppose this makes a certain amount of sense since battery performance is very poor at very cold temperatures, as well the engine needs to warm its oil if it’s going to run at all. So I suppose it is “priming” the engine and providing additional heating during these times.

Above roughly +15C the engine never engages.

At temperatures in between, the engine status seems highly dependent on whether or not you’ve got the cabin heat on. The heat seems to be drawn from the engine like a traditional car (and not from a fully electric heat pump, like I was hoping). In temperatures, above -10 or so the engine does eventually stop once enough heat has been built up.

But there are other times, that the engine engages seemingly at random. It’s quite frustrating. Even turning off the heat won’t guarantee that the engine will turn off.

Sometimes when the engine is running for no apparent reason (i.e. relatively warm outside, no heat needed inside) turning the car off and on again seems to kick the car into EV mode. But not always.

As frustrating as that is, even during these periods the batteries are propelling the car, the engine only runs at an idle. So fuel usage is still low.

In fact, the engine almost never goes above idle RPM, except in “sport” mode or if you floor it.

Cold Weather Fuel Economy Sucks

Winnipeg experienced on of the coldest winters on record this year.

You can see this reflected in the data above. The worst fuel economy was mid January at 13.4L/100km. While this is utterly disappointing for a car capable of full EV, I’d expect this is not worse than a non-hybrid Santa Fe during similar temps.

The interesting thing about the characteristics of the EV algorithm is that at these super cold temps, your fuel economy actually increases the further you drive. I think this is due to the fact that the engine is mainly idling so it’s burning a constant amount of fuel while you’re continuing to drive further and faster without using any more fuel.

Warm Weather = Full EV

Based on what I’ve seen in May (if we didn’t take any road trips) I wouldn’t expect to buy more than one tank of gas this entire summer.

At temperatures above 15C the gas engine stays off 98% of the time. It does still randomly engage occasionally for short periods of time (perhaps to charge the DC battery?). And also sometimes when getting up to speed quickly.

I am very pleased by this warmer weather performance.

Conclusions

I fully expect the summer driving on electricity to outweigh the poor performance during this extremely cold winter. If next winter is closer to seasonal I’d expect to say below 9L/100km even in January. The fuel savings should only add up over time.

If you need a vehicle, a PHEV is a great transitional vehicle while the electric infrastructure gets built out. Even in the coldest Winnipeg winter.