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COVID-19 Gets the Wheels Turning on a National Cycling Strategy

More Canadians are seeking new active transport options. An NDP MP is seizing the moment, and he has a key Liberal ally.

Christopher Guly 15 Jun

Tyee frequent contributor Christopher Guly is an Ottawa-based journalist and member of the Canadian Parliamentary Press Gallery.

Amid the dark clouds of the COVID-19 pandemic has come at least one rare ray of light. Less vehicle traffic on roads has resulted in cleaner air.

This climate-friendly transportation trend has also given flight to the dogged determination of a BC NDP MP to have Canada follow the lead of other countries and adopt a national cycling strategy.

Gord Johns, who represents the central Vancouver Island riding of Courtenay-Alberni, has twice tried to get Parliament to adopt a national plan to, as he describes it, “put bums on bikes.”

Despite receiving support from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, along with such major cities as Toronto, Ottawa and Victoria, he failed to get support for the cycling strategy on his first attempt four years ago.

This year, two days after he introduced another private member’s bill with the same objective, Parliament was suspended due to the COVID-19 crisis.

But the pandemic has highlighted both the necessity and the opportunity for a national cycling strategy — and Johns now has an important government ally.

On March 11, the day the Johns introduced Bill C-239 in the Commons, a Liberal MP with considerable clout tweeted a hint of support for Johns.

Andy Fillmore, parliamentary secretary to Infrastructure and Communities Minister Catherine McKenna, announced that he was tasked with creating Canada’s first national active transportation strategy.

His mandate from McKenna is to develop “a national active transportation strategy that promotes bicycle and walking-friendly communities and school travel, including identifying and harnessing current investments that fall within the strategy.”

“By considering active transportation, alongside transit, as a component of integrated mobility within communities, this strategy should guide and inform our government’s commitment to permanent public transit funding.” Johns is “getting what he wants, as are cycling advocates across the country,” Fillmore told The Tyee.

Last month, Johns — who in 2017 visited 31 communities within his 8,571-square-kilometre riding over 13 days by bike — sent McKenna a letter asking her to “prioritize funding” for cycling and active infrastructure as part of the government’s economic stimulus package.

“Throughout this pandemic, we have seen an increased demand from Canadians for more outdoor public space in communities, including space for cycling and other forms of active transportation,” said the May 15 letter signed by Johns and Taylor Bachrach, the NDP critic for infrastructure and communities and MP for the B.C. riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley.

“Local governments across Canada have taken steps to facilitate increased cycling while safely supporting physical distancing, including closing low-traffic roads or removing on-street parking to make space for bikes,” the letter says.

They say that countries have also committed to funding national cycling strategies.

Last month, Boris Johnson’s government announced a £2-billion plan (about C$3.4 billion) to create pop-up bike lanes and cycle-only corridors throughout the United Kingdom “to boost greener, active transport.”

New Zealand, which as of last Monday reported no active cases of COVID-19, has launched an Innovative Streets for People pilot fund, worth more than $7 million New Zealand dollars (about C$6 million). It provides municipalities with 90-per-cent-funding to establish healthy and eco-friendly initiatives, such as bike lanes, which don’t “create space for cars” but “demonstrate the value of using tactical urbanism to advance future permanent change.”

Johns said that in several European countries, cycling begins early in life.

“In the Netherlands, 50 per cent of children ride their bikes to school; in Denmark, it’s 40 per cent. In Sweden, it’s 20 per cent; in Germany, it’s 15 per cent — and in Canada, it’s two per cent,” he said. “There is an argument that it’s low here because we live in a big country. But 83 per cent of Canadians live in an urban or suburban area, and 35 per cent live in three cities: Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal.”

Too cold to cycle year-round in Canada? “Toronto is a one-degree [C] median difference than Stockholm,” said Johns, who regularly rode through Ottawa’s long winters on one of two bikes he purchased on Kijiji until he injured his back in 2019.

While the pandemic has added velocity to his push for more bikes and fewer cars on the road, several groups have been calling on the federal Liberals to do something similar since the party came to power nearly five years ago.

In 2016, Vélo Canada Bikes, a national cycling-advocacy organization, proposed the allocation of federal infrastructure funding to promote cycling and walking.

A year later, eight health-related organizations, including the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Alzheimer Society of Canada, sent a letter to then-health minister Dr. Jane Philpott, urging the federal government to establish a national active transportation strategy, which they described as “the holy grail of public health.”

Citing studies, the coalition argued that premature death could be reduced by 28 per cent among people who cycle three hours per week and by 22 per cent among who walk 29 minutes per day, seven days a week. Dedicated bike lanes would also help reduce vehicle-related collisions — and bikes over single-passenger cars for short trips would lower greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2017, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment issued a statement supporting a national cycling strategy.

Johns said cycling could increase dramatically with support.

“In places where they build proper cycling and active transportation infrastructure and where safety has been addressed, ridership goes through the roof — like in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto. But we don’t have federal dollars dedicated to cycling and active transportation,” he said.

“We’re at a critical time because of COVID. Everything’s accelerated, and we have a golden opportunity that could vanish very quickly.”

“In some cities, public transit ridership is down by 20 per cent as people are moving to different modes of transportation because of the public-health risks with the spread of COVID,” Johns said. In Vancouver, the number of people using transit fell by 85 per cent.

In South America, residents of major capital cities are getting on bikes and municipal officials are expanding bike lanes to ease crowding on public transit, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Officials in Bogota, Colombia recently expanded bike routes in the city, encouraging people to abandon crowded public transportation and the risk of catching the coronavirus. Photo by Fernando Vergara, AP.

On both sides of the Atlantic, pop-up cycle lanes have appeared during the pandemic from New York to Paris, where streets are reconfigured for bike and pedestrian traffic.

Johns would like to see something like this happen in Canada and wants the federal government to move fast in allocating emergency funding for a cycling strategy when schools reopen and more people go back to work in the fall, barring a second wave of the pandemic.

“It could be more cars on the road or more bikes on the road,” said Johns, who said that both McKenna and Transport Minister Marc Garneau have been supportive of alternative transportation. (Federal NDP leader and cycling enthusiast Jagmeet Singh have also promoted a national strategy.)

“But we need to see things accelerated. It can’t just be talk of building a plan a year down the road,” said Johns. “The federal government has a huge role to play in that it can support cash-strapped municipalities with emergency funding to make the right choice.”

Anders Swanson, the Winnipeg-based chair of Vélo Canada Bikes, believes an “emergency-mobility plan” is required in light of decreased transit ridership resulting from physical distancing and fears of contracting COVID-19.

In April, he sent a letter to McKenna and called on the federal government to help communities across Canada install temporary bicycle networks as part of a nationwide active-transportation retrofit that would cost about $24 per Canadian, or “less than the cost of one delivered pizza.”

“I think we’re never going to forget the few months where we had no cars on the streets,” Swanson said in an interview. “So that created a space that could either be filled with way more cars, or it could be filled with a mix of walking, biking, driving and sometimes transit.”

Noting that Winnipeg bike shops have sold out stock, Swanson believes “the desire for people to ride a bicycle far outstrips the infrastructure that’s available to them.”

“I can’t think of anything else where people are so jazzed and keen on it, and the pandemic kind of highlighted that in a very obvious way... we need to catch up to what people already think could be and should be normal.”

The man responsible for advancing active transportation in Canada is alive to that sentiment.

960px version of LiberalMPAndyFillmoreCycling.jpg
Liberal MP Andy Fillmore has been tasked with creating an ‘active transport’ plan for Canada. Photo submitted.

The COVID-19 crisis has “seriously increased the demand and rationale and interest in better active transportation opportunities around the country,” said Fillmore, the MP for Halifax, who noted that the city’s transit system is losing $3 million a month and has eliminated fares to encourage ridership.

“The silver lining of the pandemic is that it’s helped me and the two New Democrat MPs to make the case that now is the time for a really solid strategy and for real active transportation infrastructure and funding. So all’s well that ends well.”

He explained that money will come from the Investing in Canada infrastructure plan.

Within that 12-year, $180-billion program, unveiled in 2018, are three streams (public transit, green, and rural and northern communities) from which funds can flow to provinces and territories to support active transportation projects.

“Some of our energy is focused on making sure that provinces and municipalities know that money is there for them, and they just need to come to us,” said Fillmore.

“The nature of federal infrastructure money is that our level of government can’t reach down into communities and pick projects and fund them. We need to have provinces come and apply for them.”

According to him, “many provinces, for reasons known only to them but probably mostly political, are not interested in coming and knocking on the federal door to ask for infrastructure dollars.”

“We’re working hard to illustrate why it’s important that they not deny their citizenry access to these funds. But for the time being, there are some premiers who are interested in doing it that way,” said Fillmore.

When asked whether that includes Ontario Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford, who has been publicly collegial with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government during the COVID-19 crisis, Fillmore laughed “could be.”

The Tyee reached out to Ford’s office for comment on the federal NDP’s cycling strategy and the Fillmore-led active transportation strategy.

In an emailed statement, a Transportation Ministry spokesperson said it is “working with municipalities to incorporate active transportation infrastructure into provincial highway crossings where it makes sense” and providing funding for municipal cycling infrastructure projects.

Fillmore said the active transportation strategy was never intended to be a “funding bucket to pay for infrastructure.” The goal was to set out design standards for communities and “communicate the benefits for human health, environmental health and to our health-care system.”

Fillmore said he wouldn’t be surprised if the strategy also resulted in recommendations for further funding.

The appeal of cycling-friendly initiatives in New Zealand and the U.K. during the pandemic is that “they’re not necessarily about expensive, permanent infrastructure and not focusing on a two-year cycle of design and construction,” he said.

“They’re focusing on what planners like me call ‘cheap and cheerful’ projects. So you’re really creating bike lanes out of pylons or paint striping or planter boxes that can be moved overnight by public works trucks. That’s the kind of thing that we’re seeing in the COVID era and that’s where the opportunity lies, I think, for a really quick rollout before we get to the full-blown active transportation strategy,” explained Fillmore, an avid cyclist.

“The beauty about proceeding with those cheap-and-cheerful projects now is that it becomes the proof of concept. ‘My gosh, look, we built a temporary, easy-to-do bike lane and it’s full of people and clearly shows there’s demand for it.’ A year ago, those arguments were much harder to make than they are now because we have physical distancing.”

Before entering Parliament in 2015, the 54-year-old Fillmore spent 20 years as an urban planner and served as Halifax’s first manager of urban design, and director and associate professor at the Dalhousie University School of Planning. He’s a founding member and former vice-president of the Council for Canadian Urbanism.

The first urban planner elected to the House of Commons, Fillmore said he entered politics in response to what he saw as Stephen Harper’s Conservative government “at best ignoring cities, and at worst despising cities.”

Now, as McKenna’s parliamentary secretary since last year’s federal election, he’s in a position to pay attention to the country’s urban landscape.

For instance, he said, things like “low-cost mobility connections, whether it’s widening sidewalks for people in wheelchairs or creating bike lanes for scooters, start to connect different parts of communities together — a residential community to the main street in a way that can help to reactivate local businesses and retailers, which is as important to our emergence from COVID as all the financial programs.”

Fillmore would like to see a shift in cities away from the “car is king” idea that emerged throughout North America following the Second World War. “COVID gives us the opportunity to rethink that and bring urban planners, like me, who have been trying to change our cities momentum to go further and faster with those changes.”

Swanson of Canada Bikes also draws from history to make his point about “the power of the bicycle” to reimagine mobility in municipalities.

“During the OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] energy crisis in the 1970s, countries went two different ways,” he explained. “The United States had a plan to build 100,000 miles of bikeways but decided not to do it. The Netherlands built its own network and is now a model for the world.”

When asked to outline his masterplan for cities, Fillmore said it would be about “moving people and not about moving cars.”

Fillmore said there is an informal caucus of about 20 MPs from all parties, except for the official Opposition Conservatives, who support the national active transportation strategy, which will roll out later this year.

Johns hopes the wheels turn without anyone hitting the brakes. “We have the opportunity to create a new normal for transportation in our country,” he said.

“We don’t want to see this window closed with people going to buy a vehicle that leads to increased congestion and costs on our infrastructure, human health and greenhouse gas emissions that far outweigh investing in active transportation.”  [Tyee]

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