Canada’s recently released (and first ever!) National Active Transportation Strategy and accompanying Active Transportation Fund was decades in the making, with strong advocacy efforts and government collaboration having taken place over this time frame.
A few months ago, we wrote a blog post titled “Canada’s Active Transportation Strategy and Fund: What it Means for Communities” that outlined the content of the National Active Transportation Strategy and Fund and how it can be used. As we await the launch of the Fund, the team at GCC thought it would be worthwhile to reflect on the process to achieve this milestone and explore what the future holds for active transportation in Canada.
We reached out to some of the key players within the Canadian active transportation community, including Jamie Hilland (Active School Travel Canada), Brian Pincott (Vélo Canada Bikes), Jamie Stuckless (Stuckless Consulting Inc.), and Brianna Salmon (Green Communities Canada/Canada Walks).
This piece explores the background of the advocacy efforts and reflections on the strategy and fund.
Canada, like many other countries, has a high rate of personal vehicle use. Many attribute this to our climate, land size, and the car-centric infrastructure that has been built over many decades. This has left other modes of transportation – including walking, cycling, and wheeling – to be regarded as “fringe” travel modes that are dangerous due to the lack of protected infrastructure networks in most urban and rural communities.
As a result of the many consequences of an automobile-dominated transportation system, (such as health, safety, environment, cost, and inefficiency) a number of Canadians mobilized to challenge this system and ask for better. These individuals began organizing, calling on the government to prioritize active transportation and invest in protected infrastructure in their communities.
For years, these efforts were fragmented with much of the same approaches being applied across the country, resulting in little movement from municipalities and other government partners. Activists soon realized that this required a coordinated effort – one that ultimately called for the federal government to prioritize active transportation through a national, standardized approach to implementing active transportation infrastructure, and leverage the significant spending capacity of the federal government in support of healthier, safer, and more sustainable transportation systems. There were loud calls for a national active transportation strategy and a dedicated fund to achieve this.
“When you take a look at how infrastructure in our municipalities gets funded, it’s almost always funded by provincial and federal governments. So, if we are going to get cycle tracks installed in, let’s say, Halifax, we actually need the federal government at the table. We had to push to make sure this was a priority for the federal government and that they not only were going to have a strategy but that they actually put money behind it as well.” explained Brian Pincott, Executive Director of Vélo Canada Bikes.
Unfortunately, those calls were largely ignored for decades. Politicians frequently remarked that there was little demand for active transportation, or that there were other priorities. These activists struggled to be heard and were unable to generate the political capital and recognition necessary to get active transportation on the national agenda.
It was when Catherine McKenna, former Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre, took up this issue that active transportation began getting the necessary political traction. McKenna was elected in 2015, running on a promise to prioritize active transportation, and work towards developing a national strategy. She was appointed as the Minister of Environment and Climate, where she began linking active transportation to climate change, community, and equity. It was at this time that the staff in her office began to reach out to active transportation advocates to determine the best course of action towards developing a National Active Transportation Strategy and Fund to support this work.
In 2018, this newfound political traction became apparent, with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) adopting a resolution (95% in favour) that urged the federal government to take action in support of active transportation. This resolution, put forth by the Nova Scotia Federation of Municipalities, called for better data, research on benefits, design guidelines, and coordination among federal departments to provide long-term federal investment into active transportation infrastructure. The FCM resolution was encouraging and gave additional “fuel” to the advocacy efforts.
Following the 2019 election, Catherine McKenna became Minister of Infrastructure and Communities. It was in this position that Minister McKenna began mobilizing on an Active Transportation Strategy, with support from Andy Fillmore, Member of Parliament for Halifax and Parliamentary Secretary to McKenna.
“For a lot of these kinds of things, you do the work for years and nothing seems to happen, and then the right person comes along who’s in the right place of power and is willing to champion it. Then something happens.” remarked Pincott.
In 2019, the Department of Infrastructure and Communities reached out to some of the activists who had been championing a national strategy, signaling that the political will was finally in parliament.
These activists mobilized once again, developing a coalition of diverse organizations to move a strategy forward. Such organizations included Vélo Canada Bikes, Green Communities Canada (Canada Walks), Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), Heart & Stroke, Trans Canada Trail, and Active School Travel Canada. Strong collaboration between these organizations was key to establish clear and consistent messaging across the coalition, resulting in greater impact.
Members of these organizations began exchanging emails, letters, and having frequent meetings with MPs and policy advisors within the government. This helped to establish a relationship of trust between all actors, allowing the activists to offer salient advice and support to government partners.
“I would say the most effective approach was establishing trust and moving into a bit of a ‘trusted advisor’ capacity. I know a lot of advocates are frustrated, but really, the most successful advocacy efforts that I’ve seen are ones where it’s a relationship based on cooperation and support.” explained Jamie Hilland, Co-Chair of Active School Travel Canada.
In March of 2020, and after decades of advocacy work and relationship building by members of the coalition, Andy Fillmore announced on Twitter that he was being tasked with leading the development of a National Active Transportation Strategy.
“Years of effort met opportunity”, said Hilland.
This announcement came on March 11th, 2020, which happened to be the same week that COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic and lockdowns soon followed. During this difficult time, the rates of walking and cycling soared, providing a safe and healthy way for people to travel and get exercise. This led to an increased demand for bicycles, open streets, and safe infrastructure from Canadians.
“We’ve seen bike sales go through the roof, we’ve seen people out in their communities walking and cycling way more than before, we’ve seen municipalities very quickly responding by opening up streets to active transportation. That sent a strong signal to the federal government that this is something that people really want.” said Pincott.
The latent demand for active transportation signaled to Ottawa that the strategy was desperately needed. This timing played a key role in the strategy and fund finally coming to fruition.
Strategy and Fund:
A year after the announcement from Andy Fillmore, the National Active Transportation Strategy began formal development in March of 2021 with the launch of an outreach campaign. This included a fast-paced consultation process with stakeholders, such as provinces, territories, Indigenous communities, not-for-profits, planning and engineering professionals, and municipalities. Over 50 active transportation experts and 250 community advocates across sectors were heard from within a few short months.
The official announcement came on July 28, 2021, unveiling Canada’s first-ever federal strategy for active transportation and a $400 million dedicated fund. This was well-received across the country, with municipalities, practitioners, activists, and people who like walking and cycling all expressing great excitement.
“For the advocates who had been working at the grassroots level to support active transportation for decades, often with very few resources, the announcement of the dedicated fund was particularly significant”, says Brianna Salmon, Executive Director of Green Communities Canada. “But having the fund be accompanied by a strong strategic direction is what’s most pivotal. COVID-19 underscored the disparities that many people and communities experience when it comes to access and mobility. I am hopeful that the strategy will guide decision-making related to the fund, ensuring it is allocated in a manner that addresses inequities and helps people coast-to-coast-to-coast travel safely, easily, joyfully, and with dignity.”
“I think it’s really encouraging that the federal government has officially outlined a role for itself when it comes to growing and supporting active transportation. That’s a big deal, and I am grateful to the advocates who have been consistently pushing for this to happen for years,” said Jamie Stuckless, from Stuckless Consulting Inc.
Some of the key “wins” or highlights within the strategy include:
- Focus on equity
- Living document to be updated regularly
- Funding is not linked to provincial support
- Funding available for planning and studies
Some of the areas for improvement in future years:
- A process for revision and updates as part of living document
- The implementation of targets, metrics, and performance indicators to measure progress
- More expansive consultations to reach a broader audience (utilize an equity lens to include underserved groups, e.g. BIPOC)
- More funding
- More focus on programming, skills training, and equity-based initiatives
- More focus on micromobility systems (e.g. bikeshare and scootershare)
- Clearer jurisdictional guidelines with transportation policy (e.g. e-bikes)
- Implementation of design standards for infrastructure projects
Activists are hopeful that going forward, the National Active Transportation Strategy and Fund will help generate a lot of interest in this issue, ultimately sparking more federal investment and commitments from other levels of government.
Some of the hopes for the future are that:
- The funding will go to a lot of Indigenous and rural communities that do not have the same internal staff capacity and/or expertise that many cities do
- Dedicated funding for a National Active School Travel Program that is similar to many other countries – including the United States
- We will see projects for protected facilities, improved trail connections, and intersection treatments
- There will be increased collaboration with other government departments and external partners, as well as cross-jurisdictional conversations and collaborations, and
- Broader support will be demonstrated from the public and those in positions of power.
As outlined by Stuckless, “Let’s definitely start by celebrating this accomplishment, and sharing the strategy with the people in our networks, practitioners, and local elected officials. Make sure everyone knows about it!”. She continued, “Participating in the strategy and applying for the fund will help demonstrate the demand that exists for these kinds of investments.”
To help this strategy and fund have transformative impacts within Canadian communities, people, practitioners, and elected officials are encouraged to do a number of things, including:
- Act locally with diverse partnerships
- Build capacity with multiple levels of government
- Keep an eye out for the fund application opening date in the near future
- Continue to advocate for healthy communities, safer streets, and sustainable transportation options
“There is a great deal to be hopeful for in the future, as this is a significant step towards building happier, healthier, and more climate resilient communities in Canada,” says Salmon.
We would like to thank Jamie Hilland, Brian Pincott, and Jamie Stuckless for taking the time to speak with us. We are very grateful to these advocates and many others who have helped champion active transportation in Canada for decades. We would like to give a special thanks to the following individuals:
- Eleanor McMahon, Trans Canada Trail
- Clifford Maynes, Green Communities Canada
- Ian Jack, Canadian Automobile Association
- Wallace Beaton, Green Communities Canada/Active School Travel Canada
- Anders Swanson, Vélo Canada Bikes
- Jason Kerr, Canadian Automobile Association
- Manuel Arango, Heart & Stroke Foundation
- Sandrine Cabana-Degani, Piétons Québec
Thank you to everyone who helped make the National Active Transportation Strategy and Fund possible.
Update: The $400 million Active Transportation Fund is now accepting applications from eligible applicants who wish to help build new and expanded networks of pathways, bike lanes, trails and pedestrian bridges.
Featured photo: Bishop Grandin Walk Bike Bridge, Winnipeg, MB, June 2020. Photographed by: Nicole Roach