Shame, Blame and the City Building Game: Moving Forward With the Way We Move

I returned from Burning Man a few days ago. Similarly to last year, I’ve come back inspired – and somewhat tired. My week in Black Rock City was admittedly a lot tougher this year. It was oppressively hot, which took a toll on my energy to explore the expansive pop-up city. But, while I return physically tired, I feel emotionally and mentally rejuvenated. As the saying goes, “the playa provides”.

I left for Burning Man emotionally exhausted. I’ve spent the last year and a half living in Kitchener and working on my PhD at the University of Waterloo, while doing my best to advocate for cycling infrastructure in a city that desperately needs safer streets. I arrived in Kitchener with an optimism for the city that slowly eroded to a point of hopelessness. I’ve had friends ask me why I let these issues get to me. It’s quite simple, actually. When your daily bike commute involves near misses with speeding cars and run-ins with the angry people driving them, the stress accumulates. When you, justifiably, see every vehicle on the road as a potential threat to your safety, streets become a minefield of sorts. Their potential as vibrant public spaces disappears.

The straw that broke the camel’s back for me before I left for Burning Man was a Twitter discussion (maybe more aptly labeled as a war) sparked by a column in my local newspaper. The TLDR of the article was that cyclists should follow the rules of the road. These sorts of columns are nothing new, and people who cycle (PWC: person who cycles or people who cycle. I’m using this from now on!) have probably encountered some version of it in their own cities. The message is straightforward enough, but, in my mind, was a little out of touch with our current context. I’ve never really seen these “think pieces” as  helpful to making our streets safer. Most PWC know the rules, and the ones who don’t follow them likely won’t be swayed by a newspaper article. What I do see these articles doing is adding fuel to the divisive “cyclist” vs “driver” fire, and maybe even emboldening some to use their cars to be more aggressive towards PWC. This is dangerous in a city like Kitchener, where we have very little cycling infrastructure protecting us. Finger wagging at rule-breaking cyclists in a city with no separate cycling infrastructure is like scolding a drowning swimmer for not staying in their lane.. I just don’t see it as helpful in the midst of what I see as an emergency. We don’t have any floatation devices handy and the lifeguard is nowhere to be seen.

Finger wagging at rule-breaking cyclists in a city with no separate cycling infrastructure is like scolding a drowning swimmer for not staying in their lane. I just don’t see it as helpful in the midst of what I see as an emergency. We don’t have any floatation devices handy and the lifeguard is nowhere to be seen.

The ensuing online debate provoked by this article was what really took it out of me. It turned into a circular argument where facts on cycling infrastructure weren’t acknowledged, nor the complexity of the issue at hand itself. It just became nasty and I felt gross after a certain point of engaging in the back and forth.

This social media conflict connected to a deeper sentiment that I’ve been thinking about since I’ve been involved in the urbanist conversation: How do we best move forward on the way we move in our cities? In other words, what will it take to get quicker action on better cycling and pedestrian infrastructure? I don’t have any answers at the moment.

As some of you might know, I’m big a Twitter user. When I lived in Edmonton, I used Twitter to highlight urban design issues I saw as problematic and bring attention to them. I was told by local politicians and fellow citizens alike that my tweeting was useful. I guess I could have called the municipal hotline to report my concern, but I didn’t see that being as powerful as an open, public discussion on these design flaws. I am aware, though, that embedded in this approach is an element of public shaming. Revealing a city’s flaws on a public platform with the potential for virality can perhaps serve as a motivator for politicians and city officials to respond more urgently than they would to a polite email or a complaint on the city’s mobile app. And so, I’ve spent a lot of my time on Twitter being vocal about urban issues I see affecting quality of life and citizen safety. But, maybe my efforts are futile. I’ve had a few people in Kitchener tell me they think my tweeting is too harsh or that it’s detrimental to the cause. My response has been something along the lines of, “has asking nicely for bike lanes or better crosswalks accomplished anything?”.

At the end of the day, I just want my city to be safer for everyone. To be happier and healthier. And, at this point, I’m not really sure on how we go about this best. To be honest, I find the constant task of highlighting the flaws in my city burdensome and, to some degree, toxic. The negativity gets to me. But, I haven’t seen other viable options that will expedite the process and I don’t think we can afford to wait around. I don’t want a tragic traffic-related death to be the impetus for our politicians to move on something that should have been a priority years ago.

I started this blog post talking about how my trip to Burning Man re-energized me and rid me of my emotional exhaustion. I witnessed 70,000 people come together to build a city out of nothing where people (on foot, bikes, pogo sticks, and art cars) manage to co-exist and get along. The residents of Black Rock City create something amazing with very little and I can’t help but imagine what is possible in our urban centres where we have an abundance of resources and ideas. I think the key is collaboration and an intention to be good to one another. I hear this intention vocalized by politicians, but I need to see it materialize in my built environment. I am hopeful we can find a way to move forward and progress without the need to shame or blame. There will always be a need for being critical. I don’t think being critical is bad. But, there is a difference between being a critic and being a cynic and it would help our cause to be reflective of the distinction between the two. If we want to be heard, we can’t let people dismiss our voices as being “negative” or “cynical” – it just plays into their agenda to keep our cities car-centric.

If you have any ideas on strategies to move the urban needle forward, please let me know by commenting below, tweeting me, or emailing me. We’re all in this together and I truly believe we can do great things if we recognize each other’s humanity. We aren’t cyclists, drivers or pedestrians. We’re just people trying to move around our cities, and hopefully along on the way we can have a few meaningful and positive connections with each other.


Interested in bringing me to your city to give a talk about the ideas discussed in this blog post? Get in touch by clicking here.

featured image: people gathered around the Tree of Tenere

10 thoughts on “Shame, Blame and the City Building Game: Moving Forward With the Way We Move

  1. Great Robin! Thanks for sharing. If it is any twinkle of hope, a whole rack of 10 new bikes on a brand-new bike share system “appeared” on my block this morning (and by “appear” I mean there was probably a mover-and-shaker much like yourself at the Venice Neighborhood Council meeting advocating to make our city a better place. Walking the tightrope of Twitter negativity is something I’ve also struggled with (i.e. when a male DJ tweets something blatantly sexist, how do I partake in that conversation). I’ve found a few reads on “call-in vs. call-out culture” to be informative and settle some of this discomfort.

    1. thanks, Liz. Don’t get me started on how amazing Venice is. I pretty much fell in love with it the second I stepped foot in it (#dreams). I’m going to check out the call-in vs call out reads. Thanks for the tip on those. I can imagine that the gendered element of the discussions you participate in can only make it more challenging, and frustrating when people may dismiss legitimate statements you make as being “negative”. It’s so tough! We should probably chat more about this at some point

  2. As always an great read! Thank-you for being a strong voice in our community.

    Have you considered arguing for cycling infrastructure not only from a safety perspective, but also from an fiscal perspective? I think a lot of the councillors, city and regional, “get” the safety issue (finally) and building community perspective, but then have a hard time standing up for it because of the engrained car-culture of their respective constituencies.

    A fiscal argument though, that narrowing streets saves the tax dollars through lower infrastructure costs (, both capital and operational, and lower costs environmentally, socially (health care costs, etc.) could be a convincing argument to some councillors (and the general public). It could be a way of narrowing the infrastructure deficit while simultaneously enhancing the infrastructure for all users. In the end, if it results in better infrastructure does it matter what reasoning and arguments got us to that ultimate goal?

    Just as the 2010 and 2014 elections were made to be “referendums” on LRT, the 2018 municipal (ad provincial) elections should be a de facto referendum on the type of city and infrastructure we want to build.

    Keep up they great work.

    1. Thanks for reading, and for your encouragement, Stephen! I love the fiscal argument. Perhaps we can work with Tritag to highlight the financial benefits of a bike lane grid for KW. You’re right that it’s hard to argue with $$! When I lived in Edmonton, it was a big part of the argument I made. One point was that increased ridership would support local businesses. And, we have many amazing local businesses in downtown Kitchener I think could use more support! Thanks again for your comments 😊

      1. Using open data from the region I did a quick calculation (I can send you the details and underlying assumptions if you want; I am less confident in the tax savings calculations):
        -The region owns 714.22km of paved road representing 1,751.74 lane kilometres of asphalt; this excludes provincial, city, and township owned roads.
        -The total area of those roads, including paved shoulders, is 9.89km2 (imagine nothing but asphalt stretching from Fisher-Hallman to Weber and Erb to Victoria).
        -Excluding the shoulder areas, the total “driving area” of regional roads is 6.31km2 (underestimate) or 63.8 per cent of the total paved road area (this applies more to rural regional roads not urban regional roads).
        -Meaning, that for every 10cm reduction in lane widths the region would have 0.175 km2 or 2.8 per cent less driving space to maintain (operating and capital).
        -As of 2015, the Region of Waterloo’s total cost (operating and capital including amortization) to maintain paved roads was $17,835 per lane kilometre or $4.89 per square metre.
        -Therefore, for every 10cm reduction in lane widths the region would save $856,598.69 per year (so reducing lane widths by 30cm would save $2,569,769.07)
        -Reduced lane widths across regional roads could lower taxes or free up tax dollars for other purposes by 0.18 to 0.54 per cent.
        -By comparison the total tax increase for regional services (excluding police) was 2.31 per cent in 2017, 2.29 per cent in 2016, and 2.00 per cent in 2015.
        -In other words, 8 to 27 per cent ($3.50 to $11.84) of the average annual tax increase each year goes to maintaining overly wide and unsafe lane widths.
        -Addition savings could be obtained if, when rebuilt, roads were made narrower by:
        -eliminate on-street parking on arterials (e.g. Queen’s Blvd, Union Blvd)
        -reduced on-street parking on residential side streets (basically any street that is wider than two travel lanes and especially those with parking on both sides and two car widths (four lanes total e.g. Forest Hill Dr.)).
        -excess lane capacity were removed from roads such as Belmont Ave, Queen’s Blvd, Union Blvd, Home Watson Blvd, or Avon Pl, etc.
        -and bike lanes were built as part of the boulevard and not the roadway.
        -Again, this is likely an underestimate because,
        -This only includes Region of Waterloo owned roads; the majority of the street network is city and township owned (see below for a rough estimate of all roads, not just region).
        -It assumes driving lanes are smaller than they actually are (many are >3.65m).
        A rough(er) estimate for all roads (not just regional):
        -For every 10cm reduction in lane widths the region, cities, and townships would have an estimated annual savings of 643,862m2 x $4.89/m2 = $3,146,103.97 (30cm = $9,438,311.90; a 30cm reduction in lane widths would still leave lanes that were 3.35m wide).
        -Therefore, by reduced lane widths across all roads could lower taxes or free up tax dollars for other purposes by 0.66 to 1.98 per cent.

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