Put Yourself In Our Shoes: Using Empathy to Build Walkable Cities

About a year ago, I wrote a post about how urban design can impact a person’s sense of dignity. The issue has been on my mind regularly since.

I think about it every day, actually. My research involves understanding how people perceive urban environments. A study I wrapped up this semester examined how being in the presence of skyscrapers affects mood and stress. Considering the rate of urbanization and the trend of building upwards as a method of urban densification, I thought it would be prudent to explore this issue in more depth.

And so, I spend my days thinking about how our cities make us feel and how we can use psychological methods to help inform how we build them to support wellness. The deeper I go into this research, the more I realize that urban design transcends being just built structures or concrete roadways. There’s a qualitative, personal aspect of built environments that I think often evades the people who design them.

Marshall McLuhan is famously quoted as saying that the “message is in the medium”. If we were to accept that urban infrastructure is a communicative medium, what is it that we are telling people? Furthermore, are we being empathetic in communicating with them? Are we considering how they feel?

We need the people who design our cities to think long and hard about this. Perhaps they do, but if my surroundings are any indication of empathic design, then they’re failing horribly at implementing it. I’ve been in Kitchener-Waterloo for about a year. I sold my car before I came here and so I’ve spent this past year as a pedestrian, cyclist and transit user. I’ve been trying to walk more, lately, but it’s usually… how should I put it…not the best experience.  I can count on having a negative encounter almost every day. I often feel disregarded, seeing vehicular movement being prioritized at traffic crossings (if anyone gets an advance signal, it should be pedestrians). We have beautiful trails that have no crossing infrastructure when they meet roadways, giving vehicles the right of way while putting trail users in harm’s way as they try to sprint across high traffic roads without being hit. Construction signs regularly obstruct sidewalks with little thought put into a safe detour for pedestrians. We’re bluntly told to “use other sidewalk”. And, at least in those areas there are sidewalks. Not too far from my house, there’s a strip of amenities on a high speed roadway (Victoria Street) that are inaccessible to those without cars. If you can’t afford to drive, it seems your safety and dignity don’t matter. I regularly see people walking on the grass to these amenities as cars speed by. They even have bus stops on this street – I don’t understand what they expect transit users to do when they get off the bus. Occasionally I see people pushing walkers and baby carriages over a muddy lawn that is soon to be covered in snow and ice. And this issue isn’t unique to KW. I saw it all the time in Edmonton when I lived there. I get frustrated by it when I visit my hometown of Saanich, BC.

All of these cities are trying to tout walkability and they haven’t given pedestrians the basic tools to do so. We’re being set up to fail. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Yesterday, I saw that 22 pedestrians were hit by cars in Toronto. IN ONE DAY.

Car culture is injuring and killing Canadians on a regular basis and we do nothing about it. We occasionally get words of condolence, but nothing more. We need to treat this problem with the attention and respect it deserves. We can’t afford more people getting hurt or killed.

Maybe the solution involves having the policy makers and urban designers who build our cities actually try to navigate them as pedestrians. On a regular basis. Perhaps if they walked a mile in our shoes, we’d have the walkable cities they like to talk about and communities that are safe and inclusive for everyone. It’s a matter of life and death. We need action. Now.

UPDATE: Here’s audio from my interview with Eric Drozd on walkability and urban design:

 

Why I Want Bike Lanes in Edmonton

On Thursday evening, I attended the #yegbikecoalition event at Edmonton’s City Hall.  We were lucky to have some fantastic speakers to help launch the event. Scott McKeen regaled us with his memories of biking from Clareview to downtown Edmonton, and accordingly some of his reflections on “sharing” the road with drivers. Andrew Knack shared his new found passion for winter cycling. Todd Babiak spoke to the issue of cars vs bikes and made the insightful point that we aren’t a car city, that we’re a “city city”.

I was particularly moved by a speech made by the 8 year old daughter of Anna Ho, one of the #yegbikecoalition members. She spoke about how by biking to school that she is able to stop to say hi to friends, observe wildlife, and race cars on the Saskatchewan Drive bike path. She shared that she would bike in the winter time, but is not allowed. Not because it’s too cold out (she smartly pointed out that if we can ski in the winter we can certainly bike), but because the roads are too dangerous with cars and ice. She said that her parents would allow her if there were separated bike lanes.  Beyond being completely floored by her speech, I was reminded that bike lanes are important for people from all age groups and all backgrounds – not just hip, urban dwelling 20 somethings. People of all types showed up to the event which I think indicates that bike lanes are beneficial for everyone.

This is an issue that I am very invested in. I wish that I could attend the public hearing  on Monday to share my thoughts, but I will be teaching at MacEwan that day and am not able to take the day off as the semester is coming to an end and time is of the essence.

In place of my absence at the hearing, I thought I’d briefly share a few of my points on my blog – points that I hope are heard by City Council.  I should emphasize that I want to share my views in a way that sparks productive dialogue. The message can get lost in the adversarial relationship that can too often take place between citizens and administration.

1. Bike Lanes and Downtown Vibrancy

The city is highly invested in increasing vibrancy in the downtown core. Edmonton’s downtown core has long been criticized as being “dead” and “boring”. Cyclists add to street life. They can easily get off their bikes and spend their money locally. In New York, a study showed that business increased by 49% on a street where bike lanes were installed. Businesses play a huge role in promoting vibrancy. As downtown Edmonton welcomes more businesses, we will certainly need the people to be there to spend their money. Bike lanes make sense economically.

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2. Bike Lanes and Poverty

As I had mentioned in my earlier blog post, bike lanes are also currently relevant for those who live in poverty. Owning a car can be prohibitively expensive, requiring  those experiencing poverty (up to 12% of Edmontonians) to use alternate forms of transportation. We can’t ignore the fact that many people don’t have the means to use a car – our city should be built in a way that acknowledges this.

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3. Bike Lanes and the “Next Gen Demographic”

Edmonton ‘s largest age group is 20-39 years old .  Many young professionals are coming to Edmonton for the opportunities that exist here. Many of those people, including myself, have come from places with established bike lanes. We are doing an excellent job of attracting people, but are we doing enough to retain them?  Recent polls show that “millennials” are becoming increasingly less reliant on cars . Are we going to build a city that meets their needs? If we want to attract and retain impressive people, we’re going to have to build an impressive city.

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4. Bike lanes and the Environment

Edmonton benefits from the oil industry. There’s no denying that a lot of our prosperity can be attributed to the revenue generated by oil. I’ve heard Jim Prentice say numerous times that” if you are in the energy business, you’re in the environment business”. But what does that look like? Cycling is one practical way to get cars (and their accompanying pollution) off of the roads. Bike lanes make that process easier by creating safe space for people who may be skeptical. Within the global context, we need to demonstrate that we are doing our part in taking responsibility for the environment. Edmonton is already leading the way in waste management and environmental responsibility – bike lanes fit well with our current endeavours.

These were just a few points of many that support why bike lanes should be built in Edmonton.

Before I conclude, I’d like to share why I, personally, want bike lanes.

For starters, I just love the way biking makes me feel. My mental health has improved. I am in the best shape of my life. I am more connected to my community.

Edmonton has been so good to me. I love this city and all of the amazing things I’ve been able to be a part of. Between my job, my personal life, and the different extra-curricular initiatives I’m involved in, it is safe to say that on many fronts I am extremely fulfilled and happy that I made the choice to move here. But there are some non-negotiables for me.

I want to be able to get around my city without needing a car, and I want to be able to do it safely. I don’t want to have to constantly battle with cars for space on the road. I’m a driver as well and I am guilty of having some close calls with cyclists in the past. Bike lanes keep both drivers and cyclists safe.

I am increasingly becoming conscious of the impact I am making on the environment, and cycling is one way for me to take some responsibility.  Part of my increased interest in environmental responsibility can be attributed to my realization that I will have kids one day.

If we keep going in this direction, our future generations will suffer for our poor decision making. Bike lanes won’t be a deal breaker, but they’ll  certainly make a difference. Thinking about my unborn children also makes we think about whether I want to raise them here. Will I allow them to bike to school in the winter? Will they be safe on our roads?

As I said before, I love Edmonton. It’s grown on me tremendously.

As trivial as it sounds, having safe bike infrastructure will play a role in my choice to commit to this city.

I want to buy my first house here. I want to bike with my kids to school here. I want to grow old here.

I want to stick around, Edmonton. I want you to be my home.

Your move.

Pop-up Bike Lanes, Poverty, and Progress

I was planning on posting to my blog on a monthly basis, but before I knew it the summer flew by. Between attending weddings, prepping for teaching the fall semester at MacEwan, and working on a few Make Something Edmonton projects I’ve been involved with, it’s proven to be a little difficult to sit down and write. However, one project that I was recently involved with has compelled me to take a moment and try to make sense of some of the thoughts that have been buzzing around in my head.

Over the past month, I worked together with a group of dedicated Edmontonians to put on a pop-up bike lane rally that took place on September 20th. Earlier this summer, I saw a call to join a working group that focused on the 102 ave bike lane. The group, headed by the amazing former city councilor and community activist Michael Phair, was concerned that there was a possibility the city would not fund the proposed 102 ave bike lane. And so we brainstormed ideas that could generate public awareness on the issue. On August 13th we decided to look into the possibility of staging a pop up bike lane rally. Barely a month later we were able to bring that idea to fruition. If anyone is looking for a living example of the Make Something Edmonton spirit, you can look to this event.  The support we received from the public was amazing. People offered to help with the event in many capacities – without their help we wouldn’t have been able to pull off the pop up bike lane, which spanned 10 city blocks. My original thought was that we’d set up a bike lane that covered a block, maybe two.  Michael suggested we go big, that we would set up a bike lane on 102 ave that went from 108 st to 118 st. I originally didn’t believe we could make it happen. Most pop up bike lanes that I’ve read about only span a few blocks. But we managed to pull it off. And that’s Edmonton for you – it shows up, helps you carry out your ideas, and exceeds your wildest expectations.

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The intention of the pop up bike lane was to get people together and show the City that we are serious about these bike lanes. To communicate that we want them prioritized in the Capital Budget. We have a small window to act. The Capital Budget will be approved in December 2014 and we need city council to budget for the 102 ave bike lane. It was announced by the City on September 19th that 102 ave was the preferred route – now we just need to pay for it. In the next 5 years, downtown Edmonton will be transformed by new developments of all kinds. The downtown core will attract more people, and bike lanes (in concert with public transit) will need to be part of the strategy in getting those people around our growing city. I know that Edmonton has aspirations in being a “globally competitive city” – I don’t see it being one without viable and smart cycling infrastructure.

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But bike lanes are more than just segregated pieces of concrete or lines painted on a road.

The social, economic and health benefits of bike lanes are numerous. You can read about them here.

One aspect of cycling that I’ve come to appreciate is that it is an accessible and affordable method of transportation for Edmontonians living in poverty. Based on Alberta’s minimum wage of $10.20/hour, annual income would be $21,216 (before taxes). The other day I read an article that stated the average annual cost of owning and operating a compact vehicle is approximately $9500/year . Factor in the average cost of groceries at $5400 a year .  And then there’s rent. Based on these stats from October 2013, the annual cost to rent a two bedroom apartment in Edmonton is $13, 692.  At this point if you do the math, you’ll see that the average person living on minimum wage is barely able to afford their basic needs, let alone own a car. Owning a car could take up to half of their annual income.  And this is assuming they are employed. There are many more people living in much more dire situations. Current stats indicate that 100,810 Edmontonians live in poverty – that’s roughly 12% of our city living in circumstances where it may not be feasible to own and maintain a car.

It is evident that we need more affordable options for transportation. Mayor Don Iveson has done some amazing work working to obtain the funding needed to expand our LRT system. But it doesn’t end there. Public transit is just one facet of active transportation.

We need safe and accessible bike routes throughout our city. Amongst other benefits, establishing bike lanes will demonstrate that we recognize the needs of those who can’t afford cars. For far too long, the system has catered to a certain subset of our population, often those who are the most privileged. We need to shift that type of thinking, and establishing smart and safe bike infrastructure is part of that shift.  Bike lanes are crucial to Edmonton being an inclusive and healthy city.

Last night I had my first meeting with the Community Well Being Working Group, which is working to support the mandate of the Mayor’s Task Force to Eliminate Poverty in Edmonton. I am honored to be involved in helping co-chair that working group, and proud to live in a city where our Mayor has prioritized poverty elimination as one of the foremost areas of action.

When I reflect on how community well being is tied to poverty elimination, I see the establishment of safe cycling infrastructure to be an undeniable part of the solution. I don’t see bike lanes as the sole means of eradicating poverty, but a supportive element that would contribute to that mission. Cycling promotes health, is affordable, and contributes positively to community.

I’ve blathered on a bit, as this topic is one that I am passionate about.

This post was my longwinded way of saying that I encourage urge you to write your city councilors in support of establishing the 102 ave bike lanes in the 2015 Capital Budget .

Thanks for your time,

Robin