You’ve spent several few hours of your time attending public meetings hosted by your municipality on the development of a new plan. You had to rearrange your child care and leave work early to attend. Wouldn’t you love to know how your comments on the proposed plan were used?

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A page from the 2013-2014 Implementation Update

You may have heard about the City of Vancouver’s Greenest City 2020 Action Plan. Launched in 2010, the Action Plan planning process included a public engagement campaign that allowed residents to crowdsource ideas in an online forum. The Plan has ten goal areas, each with a specific 2020 target. The question asked in the forum was “How can we achieve reach our 2020 targets?” Guided by City staff, who moderated the forum, answered questions, and clarified levels of responsibility in implementation, participants suggested ways in which to meet the targets. Ideas were then reviewed and consolidated by staff, and participants were then able to vote on the ideas. As the status of an idea changed (under consideration, planned, started, completed, or declined), every person who voted on, commented on, or submitted the idea was notified by email. Since 2011, the City has published its progress on meeting the targets. The Greenest City 2020 Action Plan won the 2012 Sustainable communities Award from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.

Five years after participating in the online forum, I still receive Greenest City Newsletters. They contain information about events in the city (e.g. Bike to Work Week, the BC Commuter Challenge, the proposed Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline) and ways that residents can help meet the goals, such as using a rain barrel for collecting water to be used for lawns and plans. At the bottom of each section, they site the relevant Greenest City goal: Green Transportation, Climate Leadership, Clean Water. And each newsletter has dozens of links to City initiatives and programs.

Just last week I received an update that the City was already meeting its Greenest City 2020 goal for transportation mode share: 50% of all trips in the City are now made by walking, cycling, or public transit. This is a major increase from 40% in 2008. There are almost 100,000 bike trips per day in the City. Vancouver has done a lot to mainstream cycling, including designated cycling routes with signals at bike height and installing protected bike lanes on the Burrard Bridge, Hornby Street, and Union. Many of these changes have been introduced through pilot projects, which were carefully evaluated before becoming permanent.

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A screen shot of the May 2015 newsletter

In the past few years I have visited many universities in Canada, the US and Europe, and I often get to speak to local planners and scholars in urban planning. Every one of them has been amazed at the Greenest City newsletters. Not only was the planning process itself innovative, but the way in which the City has kept in touch with participants on how the plan is being implemented is very unusual. Many municipal planning websites are difficult to navigate–it can take some sleuthing to find the official plan, by-law, or meeting information that you need. All of the information for the Greenest City is in one place, so it’s easy to see the progress that’s been made, like the establishment of the Greenest City Fund to implement the ideas in the Plan, strategies on climate change, a new program on recycling food scraps, and improvements to walking and cycling routes. The newsletters make it easy to understand all of the policies, programs, and initiatives that directly relate to the plan, and they’re written in non-specialist language and designed with compelling graphics.

Obviously, Vancouver is a large city and its planning department has more resources than a small or mid-sized planning department might have. However, partnerships with universities and colleges might make it easier to reach out to residents and keep them up to date on planning initiatives, particularly on the social media front. City councillors might also be willing partners in communicating progress on implementation, since many of them send regular newsletters to their constituents. Most cities haven’t caught up to online participation methods, and don’t have well-organized websites or regular email updates for their residents. Practicing planners regularly check out plans, policies, and programs in other municipalities to inspire their own work, so providing clear online information and regular updates might inspire policy transfer and innovation in other places.

The results of a two-year partnership, My Health My Community, give us a lot of insight into Metro Vancouver’s active transportation trends: 43% of residents say their primary transportation mode is walking, cycling, or public transit.

Transportation agencies and municipal transit providers do a lot of their own research, but most of this is not open data and is summarized in publicly available reports. In the absence of Census data or a national transportation survey, transportation researchers often have to collect their own data. The My Health My Community study surveyed over 28,000 residents in Metro Vancouver on their primary mode of transportation, health outcomes, lifestyle behaviours and neighbourhood characteristics.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Active transportation users have lower body mass index, walk more each day, and are twice as likely to meet the requirement for 30 minutes or more of daily recommended walking
  • Car users with longer commute times have a lower sense of community belonging
  • Transit use is highest among lower income, visible minorities and recent immigrants–it is 69% lower among parents with dependent children and 70% lower among households with incomes of over $100,000 annually

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 4.23.42 PMAnother interesting result is shown on this map which depicts areas with higher than average active transportation (the darkest purple) in relation to existing and proposed transit infrastructure–and there is a second map showing the same for car users.

My Health My Community is a partnership between Vancouver Coastal Health, the Fraser Health, and the e-Health Strategy Office at the University of British Columbia.  The survey was conducted in 2013-2014 and the results are just beginning to be released. Dr. Jat Sandhu of Vancouver Coastal Health will be presenting the research tomorrow, April 30th at the SFU Segal School of Business, from 7:30-9:00.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA bike_lanes.jpg.size.xxlarge.promoThe City of Toronto officially opened separated bike lanes on Sherbourne Street in June 2013. Six months later, The Grid examined the success of the lanes and found that several barriers still existed for cyclists: the curb separating the lanes from traffic could be easily driven over, and cars and delivery trucks routinely blocked the lanes despite the threat of a $150 fine. Conflicts with pedestrians and right-hand turning cars were also an issue.

But today’s news yielded different views. The Toronto Star reported that since opening, the number of cyclists using Sherbourne Street has tripled to an average of 2827 daily, up from an average of 955 daily in 2011. Even after subtracting the 800 daily riders who may have switched from Jarvis Street since its lanes there were removed, that’s still double the riders on Sherbourne post-lane separation.

Cycle Toronto, which advocates safe cycling as an essential part of a sustainable transportation network, would like all the mayoral candidates to commit to building 100 km of separated bike lanes on larger streets (like Eglington, Richmond, and Adelaide) and 100 km of designated lanes on smaller residential roads. They would like to see Toronto’s cycling mode share increase from 1.7% to 5% by 2016.

A couple of months ago, I reported that vehicle licensing rates among youth and young adults in British Columbia had decreased. Now Alberta is reporting a similar trend (“Driver’s licenses not a priority, say young Albertans,” CBC News, August 5, 2014). Alberta Transportation reports that the rate of licensed drivers aged 15 to 24 has decreased by 20% in the past 20 years, from 90% to 75%. While this isn’t as great a decrease as that seen in BC (ICBC reported a 70% decrease among 20-24-year-olds from 2004-2013), it’s pretty big news in Canada’s oil-producing province.

As in other younger populations, Alberta researchers have cited the prevalence of social media for interacting with friends and the higher cost of living that today’s young people must incur in rent and tuition. But access to transit is also mentioned, aligning with the results of several high-profile studies in the US, Great Britain, Japan, Sweden, and North Korea. Rather than just suggesting that car ownership is merely delayed a few years while millenials establish themselves, Dr. Alex de Barros from the University of Calgary suggests that young people may opt for more sustainable transportation options now and in the long run.

This week, the Toronto Region Board of Trade and Ontario Chamber of Commerce urged government to raise taxes to support road and rail improvements to help address the region’s crippling traffic problems. The Greater Golden Horseshoe, the most populated region in the country with 8.7 million (2011) people, has struggled with traffic issues for many years and Toronto is now considered one of the most congested cities in North America. In 2013, the C.D. Howe Institute estimated that congestion costs the regional economy $11 million annually. Metrolinx, the regional transportation authority formed in 2006, has a regional plan in place called The Big Move that aims to develop a broader range of transportation choices, but has faced challenges raising funds to implement the plan. Kathleen Wynne’s majority Liberal government, elected June 21st, has promised to invest $29 million through the Moving Ontario Forward plan. But the fact that a group of prominent business people has endorsed higher taxes is indeed news.

In an article by Ian Merringer at the Globe and Mail, Carol Wilding, president and CEO of the Toronto Region Board of Trade said their 12,000 members have “asked them to be bold” in addressing congestion, which they consider their number one issue. Among their suggestions for managing traffic are highway tolls and a fuel tax that could be reinvested in things like transit infrastructure–last year, they recommended a parking space levy and increased regional sales and fuel taxes. The Ontario Chamber of Commerce, which has 60,000 members, noted that the government might now make faster decisions and “some politically unpopular decisions” to help relieve congestion.

Transportation demand management (TDM) measures can include tools such as fuel taxes reinvested to public transit, cycling trails and paths, programs to encourage non-motorized transportation, and many others. Cycling, for example, is becoming more popular in and cities throughout the region are implementing cycling trails to encourage commuters and those who make short trips to choose their bike instead. Toronto is currently implementing a network of separated cycling paths on many downtown streets, as part of a $300,000 pilot project.

Many transportation experts believe that building new infrastructure, such as public transit and cycling paths, is not enough to change transportation patterns–they must be combined with other TDM measures to make driving less convenient and affordable, such as higher parking fees or carbon taxes. However, these measures face major barriers in implementation in most of North America, where the vast majority of the population is fully entrenched in the car-oriented lifestyle–including urban forms that do not facilitate walking, cycling, or public transit use and popular perceptions of travelling without a car. Fear of injury is also much more of a consideration in North American cities; thanks to a collision involving local councillor and avid cyclist Mary-Margaret McMahon last week, a bill requiring all drivers to maintain a distance of one meter while passing cyclists may be reintroduced in the House of Commons. This step may be key in encouraging more people to cycle. In the Netherlands, as a comparison, the fact that drivers are much more liable for accidents between a motor vehicle and a non-motorized road user makes drivers much more cautious in general, and cyclists do not perceive cars as a threat at all.

A quick glance at the headlines surrounding the recent provincial election shows how politicized the transportation issue has become; for each candidate, their transportation plans were critical in public perception. Municipally, the ill-fated Transit City plan was a key issue in the election of Mayor Rob Ford in 2010 and lingering arguments over the Spadina LRT vs. subway continue to plague this fall’s mayoral candidates. As Chris Selley of the National Post writes, “Toronto is a city of cynical, gridlocked grumps,” where the prevailing argument seems to be that “nothing that we need will ever get built, and anything that does get built will be the wrong thing, and years late and millions or billions over budget.” Citing the recent discussion over the construction of the Union-Pearson Express train, scheduled to be completed in 2015 for the Pan Am Games, Selley points out that many of the arguments are unfounded. For example, the UP Express will be priced between $20-30 but the existing TTC and Airport Rocket bus will still be in place, allowing riders a cheaper option.

The problem seems to be, as Selley points out,

“Torontonians need to decide what they want the city to be…Instead of bitching about the city they want to have, Torontonians need to make the best of what they have, here in reality. The more improvement people see, the more they might get a taste for it – and the more they might be willing to pay for it.”

He writes that even those who want better transit “cling to bizarre small-town sensibilities for dear life: grace periods on parking tickets, parking on major streets as of 9 a.m., buses that stop for every sprinting would-be passenger. They want an airport link that’s cheap, and that stops eight times along the way so it’s fair to everyone, but also lighting fast. They want a city that runs like clockwork without inconveniencing a single person along the way.” It sounds to me like Toronto is ready for some Dutch-style gaming and simulations to help people understand the trade-offs that need to take place in urban planning and decision-making on a strategic level. So to the folks at Deltametropolis, here’s your next international case study!

 

Those of you following my blog have seen some of my recent writing about Dutch culture, as I navigate the murky waters of Amsterdam canals as part of my post-doctoral position at the University of Amsterdam. Today my article on Amsterdam cycling, “A reluctant cyclist in Europe’s cycling capital”, is featured on Spacing Vancouver and also on the main Spacing website. For all the cyclists out there, you’ll probably accuse me of complaining about the conditions of paradise*, but for the rest of you it might be funny**. Check it out: Part 1 of the article appears today, and Part 2 will appear next Monday.

*Sample comment: “Take a tram those days if you don’t like the rain or snow – or buck up – I assure you, you are not made of sugar…This article really does sound like an “unexperienced cyclist” moaning about what most people get used to in a single riding season and learn to deal with.”

**Sample comment: “For cycling to be seen as “normal” in Toronto, we need more “normal” people to commute on “normal” bikes.”

University of Groningen's Zernike campus

Researchers are often accused of working in “ivory towers” separated from the real world. Perhaps planning suffers less from this syndrome since it is firmly rooted in practice. But most universities still retain strong boundaries between academic teaching and learning units. Even in an interdisciplinary field like planning, efforts must be made to exchange ideas and achieve some sort of synergy between different groups. While the Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development at the University of Amsterdam seems to have these internal boundaries between groups, several key efforts have been made to link our work to that of others.

Last week several researchers from our transport planning group joined researchers at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen for a unique exchange. A few years ago, our professors Luca Bertolini and Jos Arts discovered that the two departments had a lot in common, and they decided it would be a great idea for the researchers and students to meet up and discuss their ideas. This week’s exchange was the seventh such workshop between the two groups of transport planners. The workshops are organized by two students, one from each school, twice a year.

From Groningen, Assistant Professor Eva Heinen presented her latest research proposal to study cycling in the Netherlands. PhD student Ori Rubin discussed travel trends among family members visiting each other, concentrating on parents visiting their children, children visiting their parents, and siblings visiting each other. PhD student Niels Heeres encouraged discussion on what makes a focus group or a workshop: is one a data collection technique and the other a learning opportunity? Or are both research methods, one centred on a particular issue and the other seeking to develop knowledge or skills? Masters student Marije Hamersma presented some fascinating insights from her study of people living near highways at two Dutch sites–a surprising 80% of people she surveyed had no problem living in these areas, and about 20% chose the location for proximity to the highway.

University of Groningen's Zernike campus

From Amsterdam, PhD student Els Beukers discussed her research on cost benefit analysis as a tool that is problematic for many planners. Her research sought to bring together planners and evaluators to discuss some of the problems they had with cost benefit analysis; the Dutch government requires cost benefit analysis as the final step in approving land use-transport plans for federal funding. Els, Luca, and several other researchers at the University of Amsterdam are attempting to change the policy planning process through these types of projects: bringing together planners, policy makers and members of other professions to hear about innovative practices, reflect on them and try to develop their own policy and plans in focus group sessions. Can planners stage workshops that act in the same way as public health introduces interventions? Andrew Switzer, who is studying transitions to car use in Zurich and Munich for his PhD, hopes to use insights on this historical shift to learn how to shift current trends towards alternative transport modes. Postdoctoral researcher Lucas Harms has been mining data to explore demographic patterns in cycling in the Netherlands, including what percentages are due to population growth, increased distances, or increased trips. Although cycling has increased in the Netherlands in general, it has changed more rapidly in certain age groups and certain regions of the country.

This exchanged offered us the opportunity to hear what others are working on in planning and mobility issues, discuss methods and approaches, and our connection to planners. While Groningen researchers seem more linked to national agencies and organizations, at Amsterdam we tend to meet with local and regional stakeholders. The mix of qualitative and quantitative methods to explore these issues was also interesting, so much that we decided to devote our next meeting to mixed methods approaches. I only wish we had annual exchanges of this type within our own department–I’d love to know what the economic geographers and international development researchers are working on. But we’ll stick to interuniversity exchanges for now: in January we’ll host researchers from the University of Alborg, Denmark in a similar exchange.

Bike parking at Amsterdam Centraal Station

Anyone who’s visited Amsterdam could tell you that while it’s “the capital of European biking”, it has serious parking problems. I’m currently teaching a class on metropolitan transport planning at the University of Amsterdam, and two groups of students have chose to study biking issues: one will examine the ever-rising rate of cycling injuries and the other the problem of parking.

A recent article in the New York Times mentioned that the City of Amsterdam plans to spend 120 million euros on cycling infrastructure in the next eight years. And it should, considering that it has  881,000 bicycles for its  780,559 citizens. While car-obsessed countries might be envious, there are some serious drawbacks to cycling’s increasing popularity in a city built on precious reclaimed land: while cycling increased 14% from 2001-2011, the number of cyclists seriously injured in accidents also increased to 56%. And building enough parking spaces for bikes is as much of a problem as it is for cars in the US or Canada.

Amsterdammers treat their bikes like Americans would treat a second-hand beater car with a rusted-out engine. Bikes are left out in the rain on a daily basis, they’re often left unlocked, and as one student told me, “they have little value.” Contrast this with Vancouver, where people go out of their way to rent the few coveted bike storage boxes provided by TransLink to protect them from the rain. In many North American cities it’s not unusual for cyclists to carry their bikes up several flights of stairs rather than leave them outside. Bikes are more expensive in the US (in Amsterdam you can pick one up for as little as 50 euros) they’re also more complicated: you need gears, and derailleur gears don’t respond well to daily rain.

Underground parking at Amsterdam Zuid Station

Another pervasive cultural practice in Amsterdam is owning three or four bikes; most people leave them in various places so they’ll always have access to a bike when they need one. In a city where every square centimeter of land is precious and most housing units are too small to store bikes (either indoors or out), this adds up to overcrowded bike racks, bikes blocking sidewalks, bikes affixed to every possible railing and pole, and bikes left for weeks in one place without being used. While some organizations will remove bikes left overnight (including the University of Amsterdam) this practice is controversial, as most people believe they have the right to park anywhere they want and for as long as they want. Covered bike storage is available for commuters at some places for a fee, but many people will cycle out of their way to park for free, leaving nearby neighbourhoods cluttered with two-wheelers. Shades of The High Cost of Free Parking, anyone?

The City plans to create an additional 38,000 bike parking spots at the rail and transit hubs over the next eight years. But more crucially, they plan to create more bike parking laws and enforce those that already exist, such as ensuring that Amsterdammers don’t leave their bikes for over 14 days in high-demand locations. It seems that the Dutch have discovered that unlimited free parking doesn’t work–even for bikes.

 

Cycling is growing in popularity every year, even in North America, where road engineering standards are often bike-unfriendly. Even in New York City, where residents fought hard against Janette Sadik-Khan’s bike lane proposals six years ago, 66% of residents surveyed by the New York Times now feel that bike lanes are a good idea.

As most of you know, I’ve recently relocated to Amsterdam. Among the red tape and endless legwork that go along with an international move, I’ve had some time to observe the workings of this famously bike-friendly city. In the process of riding my rusted-out beater bike to and from work, I’ve picked up a few tips on cycling in Amsterdam:

  1. Separated bike lanes and dedicated traffic signals make it a lot safer to bike in Amsterdam–that is, you’re unlikely to be hit by a car. Hence no cyclist (including the infant riding in the seat on the front of the bike) wears a helmet.
  2. While you won’t be hit by a car, your odds of getting sideswiped by the scooters and motorcycle driving at 60km/h in your 1.5m-wide bike lane are pretty good. Remember the driving school tip on checking your blind spot before changing lanes in a car? Ditto–you need to look about 6 inches over your shoulder before turning.
  3. There is a code of conduct among Amsterdam cyclists, e.g. occasionally giving a hand signal to indicate left turns, venturing slowly across a road if cars are nearby, timing your entry to a bike lane to merge with the 25 other cyclists.
  4. The code of conduct is very loose; cyclists are often quite aggressive, especially when it comes to allowing pedestrians to cross the street. Most near-collisions I’ve seen have occurred between bikes and scooters or bikes and pedestrians.
  5. It’s clear where the priorities lie–cycling paths are rarely obstructed by parked cars, garbage cans, or planters, but sidewalks often are.
  6. Locking your bike to a rack is optional–more commonly, the back wheel is merely locked to the frame. Bikes generally stand freely in any area of the sidewalk or square, blowing over in daily wind or rainstorms, and blocking sidewalks.
  7. Helpful bike route signs direct cyclists as they move about the city–assuming you know enough of  the city’s geography to know you’re supposed to cycle in the direction of Osdorp or Station Zuid or Oosterpark.
  8. The typical Amsterdam bike is black, rusty, and mono-gear with fenders and a chain guard. Bright colours are an advertisement: please steal my bike.
  9. Doubling your boyfriend on the back rack or carrying your large-breed dog in the front (I hesitate to call it a ‘basket’ when ‘milk crate’ would suffice) are commonplace during a weekday commute.
  10. An Amsterdam cyclist can perform any activity while biking: smoking, talking on a cell phone, eating a sandwich, unpacking a messenger bag, dragging a suitcase along beside them.

The city is built for reluctant cyclists like me: as one British expat told us, “The Dutch just bike to get around. They don’t necessarily enjoy it.” In a city that seems custom-built for bikes, it’s definitely the quickest and easiest way to commute, provided you have the guts to battle the scooters and motorbikes and the ability to duck quickly under an awning during sudden rain showers–as the Dutch do. Amsterdam cyclists don’t bike for fitness (smoking while biking?) As a Polish expat noted, “When I first came here and saw people biking in suits, and the women in high heels, it was as if they were going to the gym in a suit or heels. At home, biking is only associated with fitness.” With very good bus and tram service in the city (although the Dutch would disagree on this point), I suspect the major appeal of cycling in the Netherlands is its cost-effectiveness…it’s a thrifty culture!

In the past ten days, US policymakers seem to have achieved the impossible. On March 11, 2010, US Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood pronounced the end of favouring motorized transportation over non-motorized transportation. And on March 21, 2010, the US finally passed its health care legislation. Aren’t these the first signs of the apocalypse?

Lahood, at this year’s National Bike Summit, announced his new Policy Statement on Bicycle and Pedestrian Accommodation Regulations and Recommendations. Key recommendations for state DOTs and communities include treating walking and cycling as equal transportation modes, ensuring convenient accessibility for all ages and abilities, going beyond minimum design standards, collecting data on walking and cycling trips, setting a mode share target for walking and cycling, protecting sidewalks and paths in the same way roads are protected, and improving non-motorized facilities during maintenance projects. At this point of course, it’s a Policy Statement; it’s not law. But it marks the profound shift that is occurring in North America away from car-dominated discourse and policy.

On the health care front, the health care bill passed in the House December 24, 2009 served as the basis for HR 4872, the Health Care and Education Affordability Reconciliation Act of 2010. HR 3590, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, was passed by the Senate on Christmas Eve 2009, as I reported in an earlier post. Its main measures, taking effect six months after its passage, prevent insurers from denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, prevents increased rates for children with pre-existing conditions, forces insurance policies to cover preventative care without co-pays, allows children to remain on parents’ plans until the age of 26, and bans lifetime monetary caps on insurance policies. In the future (by 2014), it will prevent insurers from charging higher rates for those with pre-existing conditions, expand Medicaid eligibility, offer tax credits to small businesses (fewer than 25 employees) who offer insurance, impose tax penalties on businesses with over 50 employees who do not offer insurance, impose a fine on individuals who do not have insurance, give tax credits to individuals who have heath insurance, and offer a state-controlled insurance option. However, it differed significantly from the bill passed in the House, HR 3962, the Affordable Health Care for America Act, particularly in terms of financing and subsidies. Because they were so different, President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced the reconciliation bill. HR4872 was passed in the House of Representatives March 21, 2010, in a close 219-212 vote (216 votes were need to pass the bill). Not a single Republican supported its passage, but it doesn’t matter: the bill will be signed into law by the president as early as tomorrow.

Canada has also had a few firsts lately, although they are small potatoes compared to these major American policy shifts. One was the announcement that woonerfs are coming to Toronto. A West Donlands neighbourhood, currently under development, would include these Dutch streets, narrow, mixed-use affairs without curbs, which are thought to encourage pedestrian and cyclists while discouraging cars. Dutch woonerfs include traffic-calming measures like speed bumps and planter “bump-outs,” and the streets are more like outdoor urban social spaces than thoroughfares. The other was the announcement that Canada had opened the first school to ever require students to use non-motorized transportation to get to school. The Halton Public School Board just opened a new school, P.L. Robertson Elementary in Milton, where the students who live within 1.6 km (1 mile) of the school are required to get there on their own two feet, and parents are forbidden from driving their kids. 98% of the 700 students walk, bike, skateboard or ride scooters to school, while the remainder, who live more than 1.6km away, are bused. The school board is running the pilot project for one year, and hope to expand it to other schools soon. If it is a success, project manager Jennifer Jenkins knows that other schools will rapidly jump on board; the wealth of research on this topic shows how much is at stake with increases in childhood obesity and diabetes.

All I can say is where is our national policy on transportation? Where is our Ray Lahood? And more importantly, where is our Obama?