Essay: Thoughts On Evolving Paradigms

Drawing - Prince Ave Complete Street redesign - Athens GA
Drawing – Prince Ave Complete Street redesign – Athens GA

Reviewing the agenda of the upcoming annual general meeting, conference and workshop of the Canadian Institute of Transportation Engineers I was struck by the program’s overwhelming weighting of emphasis on complete streets and active transportation. The theme is “Connecting Lifestyles”, which focuses on helping to build resilient and sustainable communities, through connections and collaborations.  Three of the five “technical tours” focus on active mobility. The key workshop event is “Safe Systems Approach to Bicycle Facility Design“.
That got me to thinking … 

It seems less than a decade since these agendas were dominated by design studies and risk analyses around building roads that could move automobiles faster and faster from one place to another. Debates focused on a road’s “level of service”, or its ability to carry more capacity, at higher speeds, as uninterrupted as possible.  Municipalities debated zoning by-laws that ensured “sufficient” parking, covering a high percentage of otherwise productive land with asphalt.

Over several decades, that automobility-centric paradigm contributed to unsustainable cityscapes that contribute to social exclusion and inequity, pollution, obesity-related population health decline, constrained property values and other challenges.

How much has changed in the last decade!  The Canadian Institute of Planners, Canadian Medical Association and many other professional groups have also shifted to an emphasis on people – encouraging and supporting healthier communities and active transportation.

Planning and transportation is rapidly shifting focus to providing sustainable and healthy options for people to move about cities. Municipalities are moving quickly to prioritize “all ages, all abilities” accessibility – helping people move around their cities, for purpose or for pleasure. This paradigm shift was described by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute in this 2013 paper (pdf) for the Journal of the International Transportation Engineers.

Politicians at all levels have been buying in as well, slowly, generally acknowledging the need for healthier communities, yet only moving forward with real change in the hollowed-out aftermath of the exodus of manufacturing, and the ever-escalating health cost burdens brought about by city forms that create social exclusion and inequity, pollution, obesity and mental health issues.  Jane Jacob’s lessons have finally come home to roost.

Image © Adam Zyglis, 2016, Buffalo News (via Twitter)
Image © Adam Zyglis, 2016, Buffalo News

Today, most cities as well as our provincial and federal governments acknowledge that there are better ways – putting people first, prioritizing people over cars, creating a built form that’s inclusive and healthy. The shift to encouraging and supporting active mobility is well underway.

Yet the transition is not uniform, creating a municipal playing field where some cities are moving ahead quickly, while others aren’t, for any number of reasons. This creates a competitive environment in which smarter cities see the research, listen to the majority of their constituents and think beyond the current term of office.  These cities are moving to create a healthier lifestyle environment that serves to attract and retain families, talent and new businesses that in turn create jobs. Connected lifestyles build community.

In Ontario, there are 12 ministries of the provincial government and dozens of stakeholder groups collaborating to accelerate this paradigm shift, with changes in the Provincial Policy Statement, changes in the Highway Traffic Act, updated highway design guidelines and requirements, and municipal funding. The Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing released its Proposed Growth Plan for the Greater Golden Horseshoe (GGH) 2016, and key changes include increased support for active transportation and a directive for municipalities to adopt a Complete Streets approach.   Provincial and federal ministries and professional organizations understand the need for the paradign shift and are supporting it.

The paradigm that led us once to say that someone can find a nice alternate route is no longer accepted. The question is not “why Laurier?”, but rather “why aren’t we moving quickly to make every street accessible to people of all ages and all abilities?” The paradigm that led us once to say that, “the street is too dangerous” now leads us to say, “well, let’s make the street safe.”

The public workshops leading up to the creation of Brockville’s 2009 Official Plan recorded comments from many who were asking for improved walking and cycling support. The Official Plan commits the city to implement a cycling network. Council’s commitment was reinforced last September when it endorsed and adopted the Healthy Community Vision, including active transportation in support of, “All community members have the opportunity to make the choices that enable them to live a healthy life, regardless of income, education, or ability.”

This paradigm shift is not comfortable for everyone. There are some societal changes that some find difficult to accept, for any number of reasons. That doesn’t mean we should shy away from moving ahead to create a healthier city.  There will always be a small number of naysayers; we should listen and acknowledge their difficulty, yet press on in support of “connected lifestyles”.

Author: Alan Medcalf

Alan is a post-corporate, volunteer, community builder living in Brockville, Ontario. He seeks to create sustainable lifestyle advantage for the community by creating opportunities for more people to choose to walk and to ride bikes. He promotes the health, social, environmental and economic benefits of active mobility.