Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

A moving story: Here's what active mobility is and how it will get us through the hard times ahead

We have three crises facing us in St. John's: public health, economic and environmental. One of the best ways for St. John's to respond to all threeM

Cycling, walking, using a wheelchair and running could benefit the province long-term, writes Rob Nolan

Focusing on mobility in St. John's is one of the best ways to respond to the current and impending crises facing our province, writes Rob Nolan. (John Gushue/CBC)

As I see it, we have three crises facing us in St. John's: public health, economic and environmental. One of the best ways for St. John's to respond to all three is by prioritizing active mobility in our city.

By active mobility, I mean cycling, walking, using a wheelchair, running and other non-vehicular modes of transportation.

Recently, there has been a debate — occasionally heated — about transportation in St. John's. More specifically, the debate has focused on whether the city should continue financial support for active mobility and public transit.

Crises on the horizon

In a time of crisis, it may be tempting to look at improvements to our mobility network for cuts. I believe that, not only should the focus on mobility in St. John's continue, it is one of our best ways to respond to the current and impending crises facing our province.

Municipalities are limited in their ability to respond to these issues since they depend largely on property taxes and fees for revenue, and they hold little jurisdiction for public health, public finance or the environment.

Municipalities do, however, have the ability to design how we move around our city, and that can have direct effects on health, economic and environmental outcomes. Prioritizing active mobility and public transit will help address the challenging years ahead.

Addressing isolation, obesity, and diabetes with urban design

It's no secret that our province has poor health outcomes and looming public health challenges. We're among the worst provinces in terms of obesity and diabetes, and Newfoundland and Labrador has the oldest and fastest-aging population in Canada.

We need to focus on encouraging and enabling physical activity. This is not about enabling athletes to run or cycle; it's about enabling people who currently get little to no exercise to be physically active while commuting to work or running their errands. Even encouraging more people to ride the bus will improve public health outcomes.

Encouraging more people to ride the bus will improve public health outcomes, and is a great way to combat social isolation for seniors, writes Nolan. (Eddy Kennedy/CBC)

Research by Dr. Daniel Fuller, Canada research chair in population physical activity at Memorial University, has shown that public transit users tend to meet the recommended weekly physical activity by walking to and from bus stops.

Along with increasing physical activity, encouraging active mobility reduces social isolation. The federal government's 2014 Report on the Social Isolation of Seniors points to the social isolation of seniors as causing "communities to suffer a lack of social cohesion, higher social costs, and the loss of an unquantifiable wealth of experience that older adults bring to our families, neighbourhoods and communities."

Enabling seniors to move around the city with ease is a great way to combat social isolation while increasing physical activity.

Good for pocketbooks — yours and the government

It's easy to dismiss these ideas as pie in the sky or fiscally irresponsible. But enabling people to leave the car at home can encourage local economic activity, reduce household costs and decrease the fiscal burden on the government.

Even before the pandemic began, Newfoundland and Labrador was in a challenging economic situation, and the public health emergency has further accelerated our province's economic decline. The approval of pedestrian-only Water Street has brought to the forefront the idea that increased pedestrian traffic is good for the local economy.

This expected economic boost is reflective of the link between pedestrian and cycling traffic and spending over time. Pedestrians and cyclists are more likely to stop into shops, restaurants and bars as they move along city streets.

Residents who are able to reduce their dependence on cars are also likely to save money. With gas, car payments and insurance, owning a car is expensive. Supporting active mobility and offering accessible public transit provides people with the option to not own a car at all. Reduced dependency on cars could help people balance their household budgets during hard economic times, and allow more disposable income to be spent in the local economy.

Nolan writes pedestrians and cyclists are more likely to stop into shops, restaurants and bars as they move along city streets. (CBC)

A reduction of traffic on the roads will also save public money for the city and the province. Fewer cars on the roads mean less wear and tear. Roads that are designed with active mobility in mind also lead to fewer and less injurious collisions, resulting in reduced need for repairs, emergency response and health care. A more active population is also less of a burden on the health-care system.

A stronger mobility system also improves inclusion in our city. People who are unable to afford a vehicle, or those who don't drive, depend on active mobility and public transit to get around. When those mobility networks don't work, there is a barrier to participating in the economy that may negatively affect mental and physical health. Active mobility and public transit are for all ages, all abilities, and all incomes.

Combating climate change

Perhaps the most obvious benefit of reducing vehicular traffic is reduced carbon emissions. In November, St. John's city council unanimously voted in favour of prioritizing climate change mitigation and adaptation. But what does that mean in practice? Well, a huge step would be empowering people to reduce their dependence on cars.

Governments around the world are attempting to mitigate the effects of — and adapt to — climate change, and cities are at the forefront of both experiencing the effects and taking measures to respond. Citizens are adjusting their diets, reusing and recycling household materials, and reducing car dependence in an effort to fight climate change on a personal level. Improving our city's mobility network to enable active transportation and promote public transit will have direct effects on reducing carbon emissions from our city.

St. John's council unanimously voted in favour of prioritizing climate change mitigation and adaptation in 2019. A huge step, writes Nolan, would be empowering people to reduce their dependence on cars. (CBC)

A call to activity

My hope in writing this piece is that we can move away from the "us versus them" approach to transportation in our city, and recognize that a better mobility network benefits everyone. These conversations too often dissolve into drivers against cyclists, pedestrians against drivers, or runners against cyclists.

The next few years will be difficult in St. John's. We have overwhelming challenges ahead of us, so it's necessary to prioritize active mobility and public transit in our capital city. This doesn't mean doing it simply for the sake of doing it.

We've seen good ideas fail because of poor execution. And it won't reap benefits overnight.

Changing the ways we move as a population requires both a physical and cultural shift, and it won't be easy.

Despite the challenges, this is an opportunity to improve our city while responding to some of the greatest crises we have faced as a province. And this isn't only for our sakes. It's for future generations that will call St. John's home.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Rob Nolan is past-chair of Happy City St. John’s and a graduate student in political science, with a focus on local government, at Memorial University.

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