Pictured: Cycling in Toronto. .

Reshaping Urban Mobility in Canadian Regions: COVID-19's Impact on Cycling Infrastructure and Policymaking

Authors: Remington Latanville and Raktim Mitra

Policy Challenge

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some municipalities reallocated road space for bicycle lanes, closed major roads on selected days, and/or designated local streets as slow/quiet streets. Fast implementation of active transportation infrastructure disrupted status-quo in transportation policy making, at least in the short term. Our knowledge related to the planning and political processes behind the COVID-19 street reallocations in North America is limited. To fill this gap, our study examined how the pandemic-time active transportation infrastructure emerged in the prevailing policy context. We explored two research questions:

1) What were the enabling factors that opened a window of opportunity for changes to planning and policy related to the reallocation of road space?

2) What were the influencing factors that shaped the initiatives related to the reallocation of road space in favour of active transportation?

Scope of Study

Using the framework of critical junctures, a qualitative approach was taken to analyze the permissive conditions (RQ1) and productive conditions (RQ2) behind the street reallocation initiatives at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic (spring-summer 2020). The study covers Canada’s 3 largest urban regions:

- The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area

- The Metro Montréal region

- The Metro Vancouver area

Key Findings

Permissive Conditions

Major Concerns Around Public Health

Addressing health concerns related to COVID-19 virus transmission was a key policy priority. Active transportation was viewed as a way of enhancing physical and mental health.

Prioritization of Active Transportation

Several participants cited the pandemic as an opportunity to advance the active transportation agenda because it was a time of crisis and uncertainty, with many referring to decision-making as being under an “emergency” mode of operations.

Productive Conditions

Learning from Other Cities

Many participants described the advantage of learning from and connecting with other cities to determine their response. Especially in the GTHA, we heard that neighbouring cities’ actions pressured their own.

Achieving Political Support

Across the study areas, we heard that political support was a key driver of street reallocations. In some GTHA municipalities in particular, the role of council champions was integral, while the diminished role of politicians in Toronto was mentioned as a key factor.

Fast-Tracking Plans

Many participants in the GTHA and metro Vancouver area explained capitalizing on pre-existing transportation plans to develop their responses. In contrast, the metro Montréal area participants expressed relying on localized knowledge instead.

Additional findings related to Productive Conditions are explained in the main report.

Implications

This research identified some important lessons from the pandemic and how to be prepared to act on future opportunities to advance active transportation:

- Urgency and immediacy prompted action & is key to future planning and policymaking

- Expedited timelines are unsustainable in the long-term due to resource constraints and a return to balancing pre- pandemic operations

- Post-pandemic evolution of active transportation may be influenced by the actions of other cities, as it was during the pandemic

- Preparation is key to enable quick responses. Materials and planning tools should be ready in case of future opportunities, and should include findings from community engagement