For the past 75 years, North American cities have undergone a radical transformation. Most of the shift that has been seen has come about as a result of one invention: the automobile. As cars have become ubiquitous in North American Culture, they have brought with them increased mobility, a sense of freedom and, my personal favorite, the great Road Trip. But along with these benefits have come some very serious problems. Our cities and neighbourhoods have been transformed from infrastructure designed to move and accomodate people to infrastructure designed with the sole purpose of moving cars around as fast as possible. Somewhere along the way, we stopped building streets; places where businesses thrived, where people could live, work and play, and started building roads; infrastructure designed almost exclusively to move cars from one place to another.
The problems with how we are building our cities is becoming increasingly apparent: traffic congestion, increasing obesity, social disconnect, social inequality and the decline of independent retailers, restaurants and businesses, and policy-makers are starting to implement the tools to reverse these trends and build cities that work better for all residents.
With this in mind, I was very excited to attend the Complete Streets Forum, organized by the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT), at the Evergreen Brickworks. This annual forum is a gathering of policy-makers, engineers, planners, journalists and other interested citizens to discuss the future of our cities, and how we can make streets work for all road users again. As of today, videos and pdfs of all presentations delivered at the forum are available online. These presentations ranged from high-level policy discussions to in-depth engineering details regarding design standards, but they all carried the same message: making streets more complete works better for all road users.
Complete Streets are defined as streets which accommodate all road users, including pedestrians, cyclists, transit riders and motorists. Complete Streets give equal priority to all road users and provide users with a choice in how they get around, rather than forcing people to rely on automobiles. Speakers at the Forum spoke eloquently to issues of economics, equality and policy surrounding Complete streets, and some of the real highlights came from municipalities south of the border. This is significant to me because I feel like a lot of North Americans tend to glaze over when you start talking about how people are transported in Europe, and often with very good reason. European cities are often much older, denser and closer together than North American cities, and that context cannot be ignored when discussing transportation policy. But when you hear about cities like Madison, Wisconsin and St. Paul’s, Minnesota instituting Complete Streets policies and seeing increased pedestrian and cycling activity, increased property values and a revitalization of their downtowns, those arguments ring much more true here in Ontario.
For me, the highlight of the day was near the end, where I caught talks from Dan Burden, a legend in the field of walkable cities and the Co-Founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, and Rob Voigt, an Urban Planner, Blogger and Artist who has done some great work in the community of Collingwood. I suppose that for me, these two speakers really resonated because they handled their presentations a lot like I try to handle this blog. There’s a lot of negativity out there, a lot of things that are going wrong, and a lot of things that need to be fixed. But what I try to focus on here, and what both Dan and Rob focused on in their presentations, choosing to highlight policies that are working, places where positive change has been affected and opportunities to make our cities better places. This is the kind of thinking we really need right now, because making our streets and our cities more complete really is one of the most important issues of our time. And when these policies have been shown, time and again, to increase modal share of cyclists, pedestrians and transit users, increase property values, provide safer communities, improve the local economy and a myriad of other benefits, we just have to make sure that those benefits are well known, and they will gain popularity every day.
Complete Streets policies are popping up all over North America. In Canada, Calgary and Waterloo are the first municipalities to adopt policies aimed at more complete streets, but with TCAT set to launch their Complete Streets Canada web page and hosting the first accredited Complete Streets Workshops in Canada (The first one was held at the Forum on April 23rd, stay tuned here or on the TCAT website for upcoming workshops), it seems certain that more Canadian municipalities will start moving towards implementing Complete Streets Policies. I look forward to hearing about these new policies, and hope that there are plenty more to talk about at next year’s Forum!