Vancouver Transit Referendum Result Might Spell Trouble for 'Senior Friendly' Walkable Communities

Where do you weigh in about the future of Vancouver transportation following the failed Vancouver transit plebiscite?

In the aftermath of the failed Vancouver May 2015 transit and transportation plebiscite, a lot of questions are being asked about the future of transportation in Vancouver.

The decision by voters to say "no" to a proposal to boost sales taxes by 0.5 per cent to add $7.7 billion to the transit and transportation budget may mean the Lower Mainland must endure at least another decade of clogged streets.

But what's not often considered is the resounding "no" to raising taxes may have major implications about the health of our communities, as well as our own physical and mental health.

Walking and Cycling Improvements Put On Back Burner

One of the most overlooked aspects of the proposed $7.7 billion transit and transportation plan was a promise to set aside $180 million over ten years to improve cycling and pedestrian infrastructure in Metro Vancouver.

While much of the $180 million proposed by the Mayors' Council on Regional Transportation would have gone towards building 2,700 km of bikeways, this "bucket" of funding would have also helped make intersections safer for pedestrians and generally encourage people to make more trips by foot.

"Vancouver has been a model for encouraging what's called 'multi-modal transportation'," says Shellie Gudgeon a Victoria business owner and former city councillor. "The recent 'no' vote has implications not only for congestion but also for the ability for people in Metro Vancouver to connect with their own communities."

While Gudgeon is best known in Victoria as operating the popular Il Terrazzo restaurant in the city's charming and quite walkable downtown, she is also a passionate advocate of transforming Canada's car-centric cities into places to live, work and play.

Victoria's downtown core is home to a large number of seniors, many of whom have relocated from other parts of Canada, away from family, to enjoy the city's famously mild climate.

Making sure the streets of Victoria are welcoming to seniors is a focus of many Victoria city councillors past and present, including Gudgeon.

Walkable, Bikeable Cities Help Create Community

"Walkable, bikeable cities not only spur economic development and innovation, but also tie communities together," says Gudgeon. "Human-centric communities allow a wider range of people to interact with each other. For example, they're elder-friendly while catering to the needs of younger people who want an more vibrant arts scene."

Seniors can remain in their own homes longer, Gudgeon says, which is not only promotes the mental and physical health of seniors but in the long run helps keep health costs down as Canadian society continues to age.

Gudgeon says the $180 million that had been allocated by the proposed Vancouver transportation plan for improvements to bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure could have simply made Vancouver's streets a little safer for walking and cycling.

"Culturally, local government tends to look after the needs of motorists first," Gudgeon says. "While the City of Vancouver has shown tremendous leadership over the past decade or so, more work needs to be done, not just in Vancouver but in other cities to make pedestrians and cyclists feel safer."

The need for safer streets is real. In a typical year, more pedestrians will be killed in Vancouver than drivers, passengers, cyclists, and motorcyclists combined.

The More Local Connections We Have, the Healthier We Are

For older residents, the perceived danger of walking to the grocery store or a social event may mean they take fewer trips outside. And the less interaction seniors have with their community, the faster mental and physical decline can happen.

"The more connections we have in our lives, the healthier we are," says Gudgeon.

Besides making sidewalks and city streets more welcoming for pedestrians, Gudgeon says, fundamentally there will be fewer cars on the street.

"Improving cycling and pedestrian infrastructure helps change behavior and ultimately cuts down on congestion," says Gudgeon. "People will feel safer about walking and cycling."

On top of that, Metro Vancouver must tackle the issue of growing congestion.

The population of the Lower Mainland is forecast to grow by 30,000 residents each year to 3.4 million residents by 2040, even as the region's roadways are already strained to capacity.

A War on Cars?

However, to some pundits the addition of separated bike lanes and "car-free" days ignores the reality that most residents in Vancouver and across Canada rely on automobiles to get to work, pick up groceries or deliver children to and from school.

Is there a war on the car in Metro Vancouver?

"It's actually about encouraging a multi-modal lifestyle," says Melissa Bruntlett who, along with her husband Chris founded Modacity, a Vancouver-based consultancy that encourages "healthier, happier, simpler forms of urban mobility through words, photography and film."

"We want to help create a city that is welcoming for everyone from eight years old to eighty years old," says Bruntlett. "If you need to walk somewhere, you can walk. If you need to hop on your bike, you'll feel that you can do that safely too. And there are roads to take you where you need to go by car."

Melissa and Chris Bruntlett live with their young children in East Vancouver, but often travel by bicycle to the west side of the city to go to parks and beaches there. They don't own a car, relying on one of Vancouver's many car co-ops when they need an automobile.

Changing Behaviour By Helping Pedestrians and Cyclists Feel Safe

"Cars are still the dominant form of transportation in Vancouver," Bruntlett says. "Bike lanes in Vancouver are just taking car lanes that were being underutilized anyway to provide a safe, separated roadway for cyclists."

Encouraging a perception of safety for pedestrians and cyclists is key, says Bruntlett.

"It's all about changing behavior," Bruntlett says. "In order to reduce congestion and get more people walking and biking the experience has to feel safe and enjoyable."

For the moment the "no" vote in this spring's transit plebiscite has put cycling infrastructure improvements on the backburner.

"Improvements to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure just won't be a priority," Bruntlett says. "The only way for an intersection to get an upgrade is after a collision occurs."

However, Bruntlett, like Shellie Gudgeon over in Victoria, is optimistic about the future.

"The trend in North America is towards less car ownership," Bruntlett says. "Millenials and even younger residents in Vancouver want walkable, bikeable cities."

The "no" vote is a setback for Metro Vancouver, but the trend appears to be cities across North America that encourage walking, cycling and public transit use while making sure motorists can get to where they want to go.

And this may have multiple benefits besides potentially reducing congestion.

"Walkable cities encourage connections," says Gudgeon. "And connections create a true community where young and old can interact and remain healthy."