How active mobility could, should and eventually will reshape Saskatchewan cities
City | Gregory Beatty
As soaring temperatures, wildfires, intense storms and other phenomena reshape the public’s understanding of fossil fuels’ negative impact, electric cars and trucks are getting more attention than ever.
But motor vehicles aren’t the only form of personal transport electricity is reshaping. E-scooter rentals were recently legalized in both Saskatoon and Regina. The kinks are still being worked out but the scooters seem popular.
Even the venerable bicycle is evolving, says James Arnold of the advocacy group Saskatoon Cycles.
“We’re seeing an upsurge in e-bikes,” says Arnold. “Once people have been on one, they realize they don’t have to pedal that hard. We’re not that hilly, but when they are pedalling into the wind they realize they don’t have to be overly athletic to transport themselves.”
Regular cycling is picking up too, especially among younger people, he says.
“Everyone rides a bicycle as a young person. Then once they turn 16 and get their driver’s license, they stop cycling, or only do it in special circumstances,” says Arnold. “But I think that’s changing. It’s not necessary to drive a car, and they’re not a symbol of freedom as they are often advertised.”
Urban planners describe this growing trend as “micromobility”. Mix e-bikes, scooters and what-have-you with good old-fashioned walking and conventional bicycles — and toss in well-funded public transportation while we’re at it — and we’re looking at a new vision for urban transportation that’s more sustainable. Long-term, it could deliver incredible benefits to society through improved health, reduced wear and tear on infrastructure, greater social cohesion and environmental protection.
But to realize these benefits, Regina and Saskatoon are going to have to make some changes.
Other cities — Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton among them — have already started the transition and are reaping the rewards. As for us, well… we’ve taken some steps, but still have a long way to go.
Saskatoon, says Arnold, is absolutely “gifted and blessed” to have Meewasin Trail.
“It goes up and down the river on both sides, and once you’re on it you know you’re safe,” says Arnold.
“The problem we have is good infrastructure to get around the city,” Arnold says. “At best, it’s piecemeal. You’re on a quiet residential street, or in a park. You’re feeling good and safe. Then you hit a bottleneck where you’re having to interact with cars.
“Or perhaps there isn’t any infrastructure for many kilometres,” he says. “That massively discourages people from active transportation.”
Regina is in a similar spot with the multi-use pathway that runs through Wascana Centre to outlying neighbourhoods in the southeast and northwest. It too is a “blessing”. But like Saskatoon, commuter infrastructure is lacking.
And the odds of that improving anytime soon aren’t good, says University of Regina geography professor Vanessa Mathews.
“We have such a delayed timeline for implementing a complete and connected bike path system,” says Mathews. “It’s supposed to happen over a 20-year period, and it’s useful to compare that to the amount of money we are spending on road widening and maintenance. We are not investing in the same way in active transportation corridors.”
Another urban planning term that applies here is “induced demand”.
“According to Stats Canada data, Regina is at about 10 per cent for people who are choosing alternative forms of movement beyond the automobile,” says Mathews. “That doesn’t mean there aren’t many more people who would use those forms if safer infrastructure was available. It’s just the present number who are using the current infrastructure.”
We know from cities that have invested in micromobility infrastructure that when safety and convenience are enhanced, it “induces” demand, so usage increases.
“It really is an ‘If you build it they will come’ situation,’” says Mathews.
“Once you build good infrastructure, people think it’s great,” Arnold agrees.
“Calgary dropped $15 million on their downtown and created separate infrastructure with lights that allow cyclists to move through the intersection a few seconds before vehicle traffic. Everyone at the time was, ‘You can’t spend that type of money!’ Well, after they did, usage was over 200 per cent of what was expected,” he says.
Here in Saskatchewan, we’re still stuck at the painted bike lane/sharrow stage of infrastructure development.
One advantage of always trailing the pack, though, is that we can learn from other cities’ successes and mistakes.
Protected lanes are the gold standard for micromobility infrastructure. Advance signals and raised crosswalks are other strategies cities are using to prioritize movement. Some cities, including Edmonton and Toronto, are also experimenting with “summer streets” with expanded access for pedestrians and cyclists during warmer months when people are more likely to be active.
Although winter isn’t the barrier it’s made out to be, says Arnold.
“People say ‘You can’t cycle in winter.’ Absolutely you can,” says Arnold. “With temperature, the cut-off is about minus 30. But if there’s a route that’s plowed — in Saskatoon, Meewasin Trail is nicely plowed — it can be 25 below and there are hordes of people going up and down the trail because it’s a viable transportation option for them.”
Throw in some progressive urban planning to build density in the core and along active transportation corridors — and restrict development of car-centric suburbs that reinforce vehicle dependence — and Regina and Saskatoon could absolutely catch up with the micromobility leaders.
But right now, the political will isn’t there, says Arnold.
“The politicians understand if they take away parking, or car lanes, they will be in trouble with voters. So that’s been a problem,” he says.
That lack of will extends to the provincial government, which is desperate to promote a “fossil fuel uber alles”agenda.
“When we look at where the money is coming for active transportation, in most cases it’s not from municipal and provincial budgets,” says Arnold.
“There might be some matching funding, but most of it is coming from federal green infrastructure dollars. You get a new bike lane, and people enjoy it. But you tell them where the money came from and they roll their eyes, because we’re so anti-federal government out here,” he says.
Veteran cyclists are familiar with the tension between them and the true king of the (urban) jungle: motorists.
As they’re joined on the road by newbie micromobility enthusiasts, those tensions are escalating.
In May, the Saskatoon cycling community was devastated by the death of Natasha Fox. While biking with her two young children at a notoriously dangerous intersection near the University of Saskatchewan, Fox was struck by a cement truck and died at the scene.
The tragedy had a galvanizing effect, says Arnold.
“It got a whole bunch of people who cycle and support active transportation motivated to do something,” says Arnold. “It started with a mass ride, which had close to 300 people. Then city council unanimously voted to deal with the intersection, and made vague promises to do more to support active transportation in general.”
Even in the micromobility community, there’s friction between those who rely on pure muscle power to get around and those who get an electric assist that allows them to run silent at vehicle-like speeds.
Politics is at play here too, says Mathews.
“When we think about active transportation, it almost always gets described as being in opposition to cars. That’s a limited way of understanding it. Part of the conflict that happens is through poor design. We can increase safety for everyone in shared spaces through better design.”
Still, it’s a sensitive topic. And with the explosion of toxic social media in recent years, micromobility has been caught up in the so-called “Culture War” between “woke” and “anti-woke” forces.
“Humans are predisposed to have black and white answers for everything,” says Arnold. “When we think about active transportation interfering with ‘my’ ability to use my car, it’s very quickly, ‘No!’ As we see greater moves toward active transportation, are we going to see ‘bikelash’? I think so.”
Arnold points to the recent controversy over 15-minute cities as an example of how the conversation has been poisoned.
“It’s a really positive concept where you can leave your home or work and within 15 minutes be somewhere meaningful such as a restaurant or coffeeshop to meet friends, or a store to shop without having to drive,” he says.
“But people say, ‘Oh no, they are going to geotag everyone and arrest them if they go outside their 15-minute zone.’ It has nothing to do with that. But people get caught up in the conspiracy nonsense, and even run for city council on it,” he says. ■
Time Travel for Dummies
When people think of progressive urban planning, Regina probably doesn’t come to mind. But with the Scarth Street mall, it truly can be said that for once the city was ahead of the pack.
In 1975 — almost 50 years ago! — Regina made the bold decision to close a one-block stretch of the iconic downtown street to vehicle traffic to create a pedestrian mall. It was a radical move. Europe has long had “piazzas” of varying stripes, of course, many of which enjoy global reputations for their history, charm and culture. But in North America, such “pedestrian zones” were much less common.
Recently, though, cities have been experimenting with restricting vehicle access in their downtowns to enhance the pedestrian experience. With Regina committed to a $4.75 million redevelopment of the almost 50-year-old mall, the time would seem ripe to double-down on that initial idea.
Instead, city administration is contemplating turning the clock back 48 years by reopening the street to traffic.
It’s a microcosm of the broader struggle over urban planning that’s playing out in Saskatchewan cities, says University of Regina geography professor Vanessa Mathews.
“Scarth Street Mall is much more than a street to me. It’s about how we value walkability, sustainability, community, and where we see those values headed in the future,” she says.
The initiative is the pet project of embattled Regina mayor Sandra Masters, and it’s being touted as way to revitalize the downtown and improve safety. It’s won support from the Regina Downtown Business Improvement District.
But the urban ills being cited have been decades in the making, and opening the mall to traffic won’t deliver a quick fix, says Mathews.
“We don’t address safety by introducing vehicles into that space. Part of that is because there are some systemic issues that are leading to social problems in the downtown. You can’t fix those deeper issues, especially as they relate to certain vulnerable populations, by opening up a space to vehicles,” she says.
Neither will opening the street to traffic necessarily boost business activity. In fact, it might do the exact opposite, says Mathews.
“Studies have found that businesses perform better when they are in pedestrian zones with more people-centred movement. That’s because it’s people who make purchases, not cars,” she says.
“You have businesses in other cities saying, ‘Hey, can you close down our street for a bit because the street a few blocks over has a pedestrian zone now and businesses there are doing phenomenal,’” says Mathews. “There’s an overall shift in thinking about what it means to move through cities and what the purpose of the street really should be.”
City administration started discussion on the issue with an online survey in June that was criticized for a pro-vehicle bias. Mathews expects the results will go to council soon, and people will have the opportunity for further say at an upcoming council meeting.
Mathews says she’ll be watching closely.
“I see Scarth Street as an important space that will very much lay the groundwork of where we are headed as a city,” she says.
“We talk about a car culture. But to me, the biggest issue is design. People who are completely dependent on driving here will go on holiday to cities that have strong public transit and bike networks, and will use those alternatives. It’s not that we’re doomed to always have a car culture. It’s about investing in an active system and actually creating that choice, and that’s how you shift things,” says Mathews. /Gregory Beatty