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Understanding sustainable transportation in Canadian midsized cities

When Erin Toop earned her bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, she started working as a transportation engineer at Urban Systems in Edmonton. During the course of four years, her work ignited a greater and greater curiosity about the way people move in cities, and how to implement sustainability in transportation systems. In 2011 Erin decided to pursue her curiosity and enrolled in a Masters program at the University Of Toronto Transportation Research Institute .

Erin says she is especially drawn to transportation planning because it affects everyone everyday—no matter who you are, you have to move around your city.

“There are many opportunities to make transportation infrastructure better and for this kind of work to make a real impact on communities. The goal is to have cities that are equitable—that everyone can move freely in.”

Good Things Come in Small Packages

KamLoopsMiltonFor her thesis project, Erin decided to focus in on how to best shape transportation policy for midsized cities (midsized cities have a population of 50,000 to 550,000). Erin says she chose the cities she did because medium sized cities seem to have a particular set of challenges around sustainable planning, and large cities tend to be the focus of research, despite the fact that 40% of Canadians actually live in midsized cities.

“Large cities get so much attention already; universities are in large cities so they are automatic test beds. Midsized cities are an important but under researched area.”

Erin grew up in the midsized city of Prince George and spent a lot of time in Kamloops at her family ski property, and she felt that Kamloops (population 86,000) would be an interesting subject for a transportation study, along with comparison city Milton, Ontario (population 84,000).

Erin partnered with Urban Systems and NSERC to fund her Kamloops research, while the City of Kamloops provided support both in-kind and with offering review and feedback on her study. Her Milton case study was sponsored by Metrolinx – the regional transportation authority in the GTHA – through their Rob MacIsaac Fellowship Program.

Erin found that residents in medium sized cities are much less likely to use active transportation than if they lived in small cities or large cities. A lot of midsized cities are newer and were built in the automobile era, – infrastructure and other challenges make residents reluctant to leave their vehicles. Erin ultimately wanted to explore what it is about the culture of these midsized cities that makes them so car oriented, and whether there were elements of that culture that can be leveraged to encourage more active modes of transportation like walking or riding bicycles.

The study used surveys and interviews to delve into transportation behaviour patterns and to unpack how residents felt about their communities. There were questions around how people went about getting groceries, how they got to work, what they liked about living in their communities and what motivated them in their choice of transportation.

One of the surprising findings of the study was that though the two cities examined are situated in very different contexts, residents of both places had many similar perceptions. For example, when asked what they liked about living where they did, respondents from both cities often cited recreation opportunities and the feeling of their hometown being “not too big and not too small – just the right size”. Lack of traffic and ease of getting around the city were also things that were often mentioned in both areas.

ErinToop-Milton-Kamloops

Erin ultimately wanted to explore what it is about the culture of midsized cities that makes them so car oriented, and whether there elements of that culture that can be leveraged to encourage more active modes of transportation.

The study wrapped up in November of 2013, and through 2014 Erin shared her preliminary data with both cities. She hopes that findings will help encourage effective transportation planning in the future; planning that will appeal to people’s strong sense of community and recreation in order to coax them out of their cars and onto bicycles, transit and foot.

“When we get people out of their cars we do the environment a great service and we are promoting healthier communities. Ultimately it’s all about people living healthfully and happily.”

To learn more about Erin’s project, visit www.midsizecities.ca

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