Five take-home messages from B.C.’s first Active Transportation Summit

Alexis Erlichman is a former BC Healthy Communities MPH Practicum Student.

We were thrilled to visit New Westminster to attend B.C.’s first Active Transportation Summit in June 2019. The two-day summit featured keynote speakers, panel discussions, interactive workshops and presentations focused on expanding our ways of thinking about active transportation and learning from initiatives across B.C. Our summer practicum student, Alexis Erlichman, describes some of her most important takeaways when it comes to creating active transportation for all.

1. The little things add up

Sometimes we spend so much time looking at the big picture we forget to zoom in on the small successes. In a session about Transit and Active Transport in Small and Rural Communities, Urban Systems’ Andrew Cuthbert highlighted how small interventions can make a huge difference. Examples included the formalization of trails to make them safer for pedestrians and cyclists, and the installation of bike racks not only as resources to help cyclists get around but also as a signal to the community that active transportation is a priority.

What does this mean? Don’t be discouraged by small budgets and slow-moving projects. 

Start where you are, let small successes build momentum, and keep at it.
Start where you are, let small successes build momentum, and keep at it. To quote keynote speaker Barbara Chamberlain, the Director of the Active Transportation Division at the Washington State Department of Transportation, “incremental progress is progress.”

2. Pay attention to which voices are in the room (and more importantly, which voices are missing)

Accessibility and equity were front and centre throughout the conference in panel discussions, workshops, and keynote speakers. A theme that came up time and time again was that the voice of disability is often missing from the table. Why does this happen? Put simply, we often don’t think things are a disability issue. Keynote speaker Maddy Ruvolo, a disability rights activist working towards a master’s degree in urban and regional planning, let us in on a little secret: “everything’s a disability issue”. We’re missing out on the brilliant minds and simple solutions that are already out there simply because we don’t have those voices around our table.

Next time you’re at a meeting take a moment to look around the room and think about whether the diversity of users of your program, project, or initiative are reflected. If they’re not, a good place to start is consulting with the users. Maddy Ruvolo, Lisa Leblanc and other speakers had even better advice: Want to make sure disability and other diverse voices are always represented? Hire them! If our goal is active transportation for all, we need diverse perspectives in our workforce.

3. It’s all about how you sell it

As planners and public health professionals we may not see ourselves as working in sales, but when it comes to changing mindsets and behaviours it’s all about how we sell it.

Active transportation is often met with backlash from drivers around speed reduction, fewer lanes, and reduced parking availability. Drivers are concerned that driving will become less efficient and convenient. If I’m a driver you can tell me all the facts, figures, and stories about how active transportation improves safety, health and equity, but I won’t change my mind. What if, instead, you told me how much faster my commute would be? Now you have my attention.

This is exactly what Shabnem Afzal, the City of Surrey’s Manager of Road Safety and Vision Zero Lead, spoke about in a session on Vision Zero and Active Transportation. Efficiency and safety of road networks are often seen as competing priorities, but what if they aren’t oppositional? Car crashes close roads for hours, which cause stressful and annoying delays. Active transportation infrastructure such as separated bike lanes, clearly marked intersections and pro-active pedestrian crossing signals reduce crashes. This is the message we can use with drivers.

We know the health, safety, and equity benefits of active transportation networks, but if we’re going to make these networks happen, we have to sell them to people with other priorities. How do we do this? We speak their language.

4. Dignity is at the heart of it all

Active transportation supports choice. It says that we shouldn’t need an automobile to access work, food and everything else that allows us to live healthy and thriving lives. When we make biking, rolling and walking safer we are saying ‘you get to be in control of how and when you get places’ and ‘you do not need to live your life according to public transit schedules.’ Active transportation supports autonomy, freedom, and choice. Active transportation supports dignity.

What happens when active transportation infrastructure is created without thinking about all of the users? Let’s look at long crosswalks with short crossing times. These leave people who move slowly unable to safely cross streets, conveying the message that crossing the street is a privilege only available to those who move quickly.

We have the power to make streets safe and accessible for everyone, so let’s choose to invest our efforts to make crossing the street a basic human right. 
Maddy Ruvolo used an apt metaphor: Imagine walking along the sidewalk and approaching an intersection. Suddenly, you’re at the edge of a cliff. You can try walking off the cliff, and if you somehow manage to land unscathed, you still have to climb back up the cliff on the other side. What if you never knew ahead of time if you would be at the edge of a cliff or if you would be on level ground? Imagine having to go blocks out of your way to find somewhere you can cross that is not at the edge of a cliff. If pedestrians were regularly faced with cliffs, something would be done to fix the problem. This is what happens for wheelchair users when curb cuts are not present at intersections.

When installing active transportation infrastructure, you might be thinking, ‘we have limited budgets, we can only do so much, something’s got to give,’ and you’re not wrong. But, as mentioned by keynote speaker Robin Mazumder (PhD candidate in neuroscience researching the psychological impacts of urban design), compassion and empathy are great, but dignity is what’s really important. With every interaction we can choose to support someone’s dignity, and with every decision about active transportation infrastructure we can choose to support dignity for all.

We have the power to make streets safe and accessible for everyone, so let’s choose to invest our efforts to make crossing the street a basic human right.

5. Accessible infrastructure is better for everyone

When we hear accessible, we often think of people who live with disabilities. If we make our infrastructure accessible, though, it benefits everyone. Curb-cuts and ramps are typically installed to enable wheelchair users to travel along public streets, but they also benefit delivery workers with dollies, parents pushing strollers, travellers with suitcases, older adults walking along the street, and skateboarders. It’s time to move past accessible design and start thinking of universal design. Accessible active transportation infrastructure benefits everyone, so let’s start talking about it that way.

Author Credit: Alexis Erlichman, MPH Practicum Student
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