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Streets for everyone

As Director of the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation (TCAT), Nancy Smith-Lea recently brought top experts from across North America to Toronto for a forum about making streets friendlier for cyclists and pedestrians. Yet her route to a career in cycling activism was surprisingly accidental. In 1989, when she and her husband first moved to Toronto, she had not used a bicycle since she was a kid. But they found driving in their new city inconvenient.

"We had a car and it was just a pain to park it and so on," she explains. "There was a bike left in my garage that was abandoned, and so I just started using it."

It may have been a happy accident that got her on a bike, but it was an unhappy accident that made her an activist. In 1993 she was hit while cycling by a driver who did not have insurance, and was briefly knocked unconscious despite her helmet. The accident and the difficulties of the subsequent legal process opened her eyes to just how vulnerable cyclists were on city streets.

At first, she was angry about the situation. "I started very much outside of the system, as an outside activist, being very critical of city hall," she says. "But over the years, I've realized that staff are trying very hard, that there's excellent staff on all of the different levels of government, and that the challenges they face are huge, so I became much more interested in trying to facilitate their work."

The appeal of getting people to work together to create positive change was what attracted her to help found TCAT in 2006, and become its director two years later. The coalition brings together close to 60 groups involved in cycling, walking and environmental issues. It focuses on encouraging the development of policies that support walking and cycling through research and knowledge-sharing between all levels of government, non-governmental organizations, and the private sector.

TCAT's Complete Streets Forum, a full-day conference at the Royal York hotel last month, was attended by over 200 delegates and took the coalition's knowledge-sharing mandate to a new level. The key to the conference's success, says Smith-Lea, was getting Barbara McCann, the former CNN journalist who coined the term and founded the Complete Streets Coalition in the U.S., as the keynote speaker.

"Complete Streets" is a powerful term, explains Smith-Lea, because "it's a concept that people seem to get right away." And, she adds, it moves away from divisive rhetoric towards emphasizing the creation of streets that are safe and comfortable for  all types of travel - walking, cycling, transit and automobiles. The philosophy is not prescriptive, but rather open to many different solutions and approaches depending on local circumstances.

For Smith-Lea, one of the ideas that stood out in McCann's keynote address was the way her inclusive approach extends to different disciplines. In the past, traffic engineers have often been portrayed as obstacles to making roads better for people on bikes or on foot. But, said McCann, "engineers are problem solvers." She emphasized that if you frame the problem in a new way, engineers will take the opportunity to come up with new, innovative solutions.

"My dad was an engineer," says Smith-Lea. "I saw the kind of work that they did - it really is a creative profession. I agree with her that it's really important to bring them in to how we're going to solve this problem."

Mark Cole, himself an engineer, is from the Department of Transportation in Charlotte, North Carolina, and spoke at the Forum about leading a rapid implementation of a complete streets policy in that city - which in turn influenced the state of North Carolina to adopt the policy state-wide. In just a few years, 130 different jurisdictions in the United States have adopted complete streets policies in one form or another.

Another of Smith-Lea's goals for the Forum was to expand the discussion beyond the borders of the City of Toronto. She had noticed that at the Bike Summits organized by TCAT in the previous two years, a lot of municipal staff from the surrounding regions had attended, "so I knew there was an interest and a need there. I wanted to get a better idea of what they would like to see and get them better represented in the program." Staff members from Peel, York and Halton regions were brought into the forum's planning advisory committee, and a special breakout session focused on suburban developments was included in the program.

While suburban municipalities may have a longer way to go, the breakout session revealed that they are aggressively pursuing ambitious new plans for their streets. For example, Andrew McNeil, Project Lead of Mississauga's Downtown 21 Master Plan, presented a vision of transforming Burnhamthorpe road from a nondescript six-lane throughfare to a city street complete with attractive sidewalks, dedicated transit lanes and bike lanes within a decade.

Smith-Lea is hoping that the Forum will have a similar impact in Toronto. One of TCAT's key goals is for the City of Toronto to adopt a complete streets policy, and she was pleased to hear some encouraging words from senior City staff after the event.

Smith-Lea has travelled a long route since she first picked up that old bike she found in her garage and took it for a spin. It has taken her from outside activism to building coalitions and bringing people and their know-how together. The eventual destination could be a transformation of Toronto's streets.

Dylan Reid is a senior editor at Spacing magazine.

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