Active transportation (AT) researchers, advocates, and practitioners are data-hungry people. We continuously seek out slightly newer best practices and slightly more robust case studies. This is partly driven by the fact that AT funding opportunities are geared towards these areas. Even so, we seem obsessed with finding slightly better answers to already well-answered questions. Data and best practices are important for developing AT and road safety policies. However, I wonder if our hunger for more data is leading us to overlook or under-investigate other key elements preventing cities from shifting towards safer, more active streets.
Here is an example – Toronto has a fairly robust Vision Zero policy and abundant data proving the benefits of Vison Zero-based infrastructure. TCAT has been working with Toronto’s Vision Zero team for a few years now, engaging older adults in conversations to make safe and walkable neighbourhoods. However, the results of this project are very localized. Toronto’s Vision Zero program has struggled to move from one-off road safety improvements to systematically installing them across the city, despite having the policy and data frameworks in place. It’s a concrete example of what I’ve been mulling over – what if we are too hyper-focused on infrastructure design and are overlooking the other types of barriers and knowledge-gaps at play?
Many larger cities are not lacking data, policies and guidelines supporting AT. In fact, AT is promoted through carbon reduction plans, health and wellness plans, transportation master plans, Vision Zero plans, cycling plans, and walking plans. However, practitioners struggle to create momentum and implement projects. Sometimes the problem is competing municipal priorities, and other times, it is the lack of procedure to implement AT policies. The barriers may be political, where municipal councils approve AT plans without allocating appropriate resources to them, and community-wide plans end up being implemented in a piecemeal fashion. There are countless examples of these kinds of understudied barriers.
That’s not to say that we’ve perfected our design best practices or that we have all the right data. There are areas that need further investigation, more robust data, and better best practices. In Canada, data on road safety and mobility often focus solely on traffic flow and instances of fatalities and injuries. Analysis rarely considers or investigates other factors influencing safety, such as a sense of belonging or racial and gender-based violence. Much of municipal transportation-based data fails to disaggregate data based on race, gender, age, and other important demographic factors. These are important areas that need to get incorporated into our approaches for data collection, design and programming of road infrastructure.
It sometimes feels that the only barriers we AT folks discuss and get funding for, are the data and policy barriers. Through TCAT’s work on Complete Streets for Canada, we’ve seen over 100 Canadian municipalities adopt Complete Streets policies in the last 15 years. And yet, building complete streets isn’t standard practice in 100 Canadian communities. Where comprehensive Vision Zero strategies or cycling master plans exist, we only see a fraction of the well-researched policies actually implemented. It is that space between vision and implementation that needs more investigation. There are many non-policy-based barriers hindering efforts to advance AT that vary based on the size, built environment, and social, political, and cultural history of the local community. We should be exploring those barriers more urgently, digging into the systems that prevent best practices from being implemented. Otherwise, best practices will never get implemented as a matter of course.
By David Simor, TCAT Director