Home Canadian News Overcoming two key barriers to getting more people to walk

Overcoming two key barriers to getting more people to walk

Overcoming two key barriers to getting more people to walk

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We all get how walking is good for us. And yet less than half of adults and children get enough daily exercise according to the Public Health Agency of Canada. Part of the reason for that is sedentary behaviour – including devoting on average three to four hours each day to screen time.

But in fairness to urban dwellers living in colder climates such as ours, one of the biggest barriers is the failure to keep our sidewalks clear during winter months. If you ask Nicole Roach, director of sustainable mobility for Greener Communities Canada, often it comes down to placing a higher premium on clearing our roads.

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In far too many cities “roads are prioritized to be cleared first tied to bringing people from the suburbs into downtown core destinations for work (which) generally starts at around 9 a.m.,” says Roach.

Meanwhile in residential areas – particularly around schools and daycares which typically start earlier in the day, sidewalk clearing in front of homes is often delegated to individual owners… which doesn’t always happen.

“So then kids going to school early in the morning (can be) going through a ton of snow or a really poor patchwork of sidewalk infrastructure,” she observes.

In northern U.S. cities such as Buffalo, homeowners are legally responsible for clearing snow in front of their homes and even around bus stops if they’re the nearest property owner, with residents subject to fines of up to $225 if they don’t comply.

And yet despite this “stick-like” approach, much of the city’s sidewalk network remains uncleared, especially after a heavy snowfall, which is why a Buffalo advocacy group known as the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board is lobbying local government to fund sidewalk clearing – even if just in the wake of major storms.

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Storms such as the one that hit the city in December 2022, resulting in 39 fatalities – many of them pedestrians or people trying to clear their sidewalks.

Group chair Justin Booth says the solution ultimately comes down to “an investment in some equipment and manpower… and that’s our push,” tied to getting the local mayor and council on board.

A second roadblock… or perhaps more appropriately… “sidewalk block” plaguing far too many cities in North America is fragmented sidewalk networks which can be difficult if not treacherous to navigate.

It’s a challenge Greener Communities Canada is trying to address by working with civic leaders in different parts of the country. In many cities Roach says, “there are really dangerous points (including) going from the sidewalk to the school site, where there are bad blind spots… or there just aren’t any sidewalks.”

As a consequence, “kids are having to share the space with the vehicles (and) it gets a lot more challenging when you’re looking at sidewalks or infrastructure surrounding the school, because then it becomes a municipal matter.”

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And in many cities, she says “there isn’t a ton of support or plans or policies for how to prioritize the infrastructure surrounding schools or community centers or libraries where children or other vulnerable (residents) frequent by foot.”

To help address such challenges, Green Communities Canada has a working relationship with selected municipalities where Roach says “we collect data on how children are getting to and from school…. and audit the surrounding environment.”

They also set up  school travel planning committees comprised of administrators, teachers and parents as well as local transportation and public health officials.

But even when all of those actors are engaged, often the outcome Roach says is that solutions for kids and other residents trying to navigate snow covered or patchwork sidewalks aren’t addressed, “because there isn’t funding allocated at the board level or at the municipal level.”

The only way that will change she says, is when financial support for solutions ranging from sidewalk clearing, to better signage and crosswalks to more complete sidewalk networks “is embedded into a city’s existing plans or existing priorities.”

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Winning local politicians over is a challenge groups like Buffalo’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board have grappled with for several years now. “The board has done a whole bunch of white papers (on pedestrian safety and sidewalk clearing),” notes Booth. “And our (ongoing) focus is to get (relevant) information in front of the council to educate them and keep the conversation front and center.”

And until funding comes through, their strategy – a strategy any concerned citizen north or south should consider for their own backyards is to see “how many people can we get to call their council offices until they make (sidewalk clearing and safety) a priority.”

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