Opinion - Gideon Forman, Anika Riopel and Brian Pincott: Canada’s walking, cycling strategy must free us from the car

Posted: Wed, Jul 07, 2021

Originally posted by Saltwire Media, Friday, July 2, 2021

The federal government recently committed $400 million to launch Canada’s first national active transportation strategy. This is great news. We’ll need more money than that to activate people from coast to coast to coast, but kudos to the feds for getting the initiative started.

Ottawa will release details of the strategy soon. Here’s what our organizations would like to see in it.

First, the strategy must be about mode shift. We can only progress toward our climate goals if we help folks spend far less time motoring and far more walking, hiking, rolling or cycling. This is not about adding a few minutes of self-propelled travel to a car-centred life but entirely overhauling the way we move around. Done properly, the program will help many Canadians avoid automobile use altogether or, at a minimum, reduce their need to buy one.

The active-transport infrastructure we build must enhance safety. This means, for example, installing bike lanes that are not merely paint on a street but physically separated from driving lanes. It means designing sidewalks whose very purpose is the security of pedestrians, including children, and people who use wheelchairs or other mobility devices. A few years ago, a group of doctors wrote in the journal Canadian Family Physician that “the number 1 reason people give for not cycling is fear of cycling on the road with car traffic.” If we want folks to ride a bike, we need to address that fear.

The new infrastructure must foster both recreation and commuting. Bike lanes through parks and ravines are great but cycling has to be more than something we do on summer weekends. If we’re going to address the climate emergency, we need to make non-motorized travel central to our lives year-round. That means building connected bike lanes that let us reach the places we currently access by car — including work, transit stations, schools and stores.

As well, we need to build the infrastructure with equity and accessibility in mind. People of all ages and abilities, regardless of their background and income, need to feel comfortable using it. Bike lanes have to serve folks who are just learning to ride as well as those who’ve been riding for years. The lanes and expanded sidewalks need to go in all neighbourhoods, not just wealthy ones.

In the first year of the strategy, we urge Ottawa to prioritize smaller communities. Many of Canada’s big urban areas — like Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal — already have bike lanes and walkable neighbourhoods; the immediate focus should be towns and cities that currently lack the capacity to develop these amenities. We suggest that, in year one, the new fund offer them a total of $20 million. The money could be used specifically for planning and design, helping city staff to clarify what their cycle tracks, paths or hiking trails would look like, where they would be located and how they would be constructed. Because of budget constraints, many small centres have never done this; seed money from the feds would help them build active transportation infrastructure for the first time.

Canada should be a country where public transit, walking, cycling or rolling — not private automobiles — are the default modes of travel. But this requires that we design streets and trails, from their conception, as places where active transport is safe, convenient and comfortable. The active transportation strategy’s overarching objective should be to get people out of cars by making self-propelled movement the more attractive option.

Gideon Forman is a transportation policy analyst at the David Suzuki Foundation. Anika Riopel is Welcoming Wheels co-ordinator at Halifax’s Ecology Action Centre. Brian Pincott is executive director of Velo Canada Bikes.

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