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Promoting and Enabling Active Transportation in Nanaimo, BC

In this episode, we welcome Lainy Stevenson, RPP, MCIP, Active Transportation Project Specialist with the City of Nanaimo, to talk about promoting and enabling active transportation – the work being done by the City of Nanaimo to shift more people’s behaviour to choose active modes rather than hopping into their cars.

About Lainy:

As a member of the Transportation section at the City of Nanaimo, Lainy uses a holistic approach to plan, market, and design active and sustainable transportation throughout the City. By liaising with internal and external stakeholders and community groups such as BC Transit, School District 68, Nanaimo’s Advisory Committee on Accessibility and Inclusion, and GoByBike BC, she is able to develop, coordinate, and execute active transportation education, marketing, planning design, and initiatives to help promote alternate forms of transportation and shift perceptions about active transportation within the City. 


In her past role with the City of Nanaimo, she worked in the Development Services Department which focuses on growth and revitalization within the City. Working with property owners and local professionals, such as architects and engineers, gave her valuable insight into how public and private spaces merge together to create a complete community. This knowledge, along with available data analytics, enables her team to make decisions on where important infrastructure, like sidewalks and bike lanes, should be installed or upgraded to fill gaps and improve accessibility in the City’s overall transportation network.


Promoting active transportation is not only part of Lainy’s career choice, but it is a topic that aligns with her personal values. She enjoys cycling to and from work and takes advantage of the 170kms of trails within the City whenever she can. Throughout her life she has relied heavily on public transit and is passionate that sustainable transportation options are a key to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and building a better (and healthier) future for everyone.


Leanne Buck: Lainy, I understand that the city has several strategic initiatives underway that promote educate, empower, and encourage residents to move more actively through the city. I'm really looking forward to delving into this topic with you, but first, can you tell us a little bit about Nanaimo and your role at the city?

Lainy Stevenson: Absolutely. So the City of Nanaimo is a larger City Center as far as BC municipalities go. We're about 100,000 people in the City of Nanaimo the greater metropolitan area of Nanaimo, which includes cities like Parksville, Qualicum Beach is about 115,000. So pretty big. We're the second biggest city on Vancouver Island. And of course we are located on the ocean. So it's a beautiful Harbor city. It grows out from our historical downtown area in a kind of hub and spokes pattern and has grown into this long skinny city along the ocean. It's beautiful, but we do have obviously some challenges with the length of our city. We're about 22 kilometers long and about only 10 kilometers at the widest part wide.

So as you can imagine, it takes quite a while to get from the North to the South, which is created some reliance on roads and effective transportation networks to get us around our city. It's beautiful. I'm not sure if you've ever been here. I know that you've done some work on the island, but it is absolutely gorgeous here. I feel really lucky to live in a city like this and to live in the city that I work in.

Leanne Buck: Yeah, Lainy I just traveled through this summer actually just a couple weeks ago, we traveled through Nanaimo and actually we were commenting on how nice it was and also how long it was, the length that you're talking about. So as that relates to transportation, I can see the there'd be need for vehicles or at least the perception of need being a very car-centric city. So with talking about transportation, what is your role at the city?

Lainy Stevenson: My role, the title is active transportation project specialist, which is a bit of a mouthful, but I'm kind of a casual position in that I work with not only active transportation, but other sustainable options for transportation. So transit of course, as well as pedestrians and cycling all the different types of movements within the city. My role is to help plan for infrastructure improvements, identify where we need those to complete our networks, as well as try to educate and change the culture of our city, to encourage people to choose more active and sustainable choices for their transportation. So we understand that, like I said, Nanaimo is quite long from North to South, so we do need cars to get around, but how can I try and encourage and make it safer or make it the first option for people to take the bus or walk or cycle to their destination.

Leanne Buck: That is the challenge. So I know we're going to get into those details a little bit more to really chat about that. So in terms of city planning, what are some of the recent initiatives taking place at a large scale?

Lainy Stevenson: Well, we just redid our official community plan. It's called city plan, and we did a little bit of a newer approach to this. We actually merged a number of documents in the city, including the transportation master plan into our overall city plan. So that's pretty new to us. It was just adopted by council earlier this year. So we are looking into making those changes and creating action plan out of the city plan. So that's the big thing that's been happening in our city. The other thing is we are growing, we are expanding at a pretty large rate. We were in the top five fastest growing metropolitan areas in Canada from 2016 to 2021. Yeah, the Canada statistics just came out earlier this year. So we are growing very quickly because of a number of different factors. We're a beautiful city. People want to live here.

It's a little bit more affordable here than the lower mainland. And some people are looking to move to smaller urban centers that still have all of the amenities that they need for families and their everyday lives. So we see a lot of people are coming to Nanaimo. So with the people comes development which has been great for our city. We've seen a huge revitalization of a lot of areas and a lot of expansions we're getting a lot more of that middle housing, so more apartment buildings and townhouses rather than our traditional single family neighborhoods.

And it's been really great to see, but of course with more people comes a little bit more growing pains. There's more stress on our infrastructure, on our systems, our transportation system, of course. So city plan was really a document to try and look at all of those issues holistically rather than looking at the transportation issues, just in a silo. So we put it together with our climate action plans and our parks planning as well as our overall city plan. So it's been really great to be able to work with all of the different departments and hear what kind of challenges and stresses are they seeing because of our growth and other challenges that many other cities see.

Leanne Buck: So do you think that's unique? I don't know that I've come across that too often where there's been merging of these major strategic plans into one.

Lainy Stevenson: It is. Yeah. I'm not sure the community planning team would probably have a little bit more of an idea, but I have never seen an official community plan that merges a number of documents. So I think it's quite unique. It's new. We'll see how it goes. Like I said, it's pretty fresh so far. It's been great. Like I said, especially internally to have a little bit more interaction with these other departments that we don't get to interact with on a day to day basis and here hear what they have to say about the decisions that we're making, what generally happens in a silo, but hearing what they have to say about it has been really helpful for us in our decision making.

Leanne Buck: Exactly. So what were some of those transportation related outcomes and lessons learned by taking this new approach?

Lainy Stevenson: As we develop as a city, we're trying to identify different areas that are good for growth, where we can accommodate more density or where we'd like to see a little bit more density. So by working with the planning team, so the community planning long term, long range planning in the development planning sections, we were able to identify where those key areas where we want to see development are, and they're often around our urban centers. So we have primary and secondary urban centers. And then on the transportation side, we thought, "Okay, well, how do we connect these things together?" So we don't just want to build up different areas of the town and not be able to connect them all together or even within these urban areas. So we were able to identify based on land use, where we should put our major roads and where we should update infrastructure or add more infrastructure to accommodate all different types of movements.

So walking, cycling, transit based on land uses. So that was a really great outcome out of the city plan. And we were able to identify primary and secondary active transportation route, which is a really big thing for us that came out of city plan. So our primary route are where we can see or accommodate to the most amount of pedestrian movement. So cycling and walking, and then allocate our budget funding, infrastructure upgrades to that primary active transportation route first to try and complete it or update it as necessary. And then we look into our secondary ones. So rather than trying to focus on every single act transportation route that we have, we're focusing it on our primary and a secondary one, which is a little bit more effective and efficient.

Leanne Buck: So getting into the actual programs, beyond active transportation infrastructure planning, the city is working hard to communicate and promote active and healthy lifestyles. So you have go by bike, the commuter challenge and active school travel planning. Can you tell us a little bit about these programs?

Lainy Stevenson: Absolutely. So these are programs that I'm really passionate about and they're a huge part of my role. So what I'm trying to do, and what we're trying to do at the City of Nanaimo is educate and empower and encourage people to choose alternate forms of transportation rather than, as you said, hop in their vehicles and go from North to South. So one of the ways that we can do that is by throwing events or providing different educational campaigns and actually working with the different groups in the city of Nanaimo to educate them on all of the different resources that we have available to them. So go by bike is a really good example. So it's a provincial event that happens throughout the year. There's actually four go by bike weeks. Now there used to only be one. So that's how popular it's becoming. It's different times of the year.

And we basically just put on a big party for cyclists for a week. Actually the fall one is two weeks in total. One of the things we do is these celebration stations, where as people are cycling to their destination, whether that's to work or they're taking their kids to daycare, or they're just going out for a cycle during the day, we have refreshments kind of just set up along our major cycling route and people just get so excited about it and it makes them want to cycle more, or it gets people out. If they hear about it, they think, "Oh, I can get coffee on my bike ride." Maybe I will cycle to work today. So it's just a way to get people into it if they aren't already cyclist to try and get more comfortable because studies show that if people just start it, just get out there. They're more likely to keep going with it, right? So sometimes we just need that little extra push and sometimes that's coffee and Cobs Bread.

Leanne Buck: There you go, okay, that might get me out there.

Lainy Stevenson: And one of the other things that we're doing with our active school travel planning is to try and instill these values in children at a young age, because if they are comfortable with walking or they feel safe on their bike, they understand the rules of the road at a young age. They're more likely to bring that with them into their adult life and choose cycling over driving if they can. And it all ties into our city plan too, where we're trying to create these complete communities where people don't have to drive from the south to the North end of Nanaimo because they have everything that they need.

And they have a good, complete active transportation network in their own neighbourhood to get them to the grocery store or to school or to work rather than hopping into their car because they're not comfortable or they just not familiar with cycling or walking or their roots in their neighbourhood. So it's a really big part of what we're trying to do is shift that culture and shift it from a young age. And we know that if the kids are talking about it too, then they're likely going to talk to their parents or guilt their parents into also making that choice.

Leanne Buck: So has Nanaimo implemented new infrastructure in the past while that you've been able to go back and like you say, get data from, in terms of if we build it, they will come.

Lainy Stevenson: Yeah, well recently our newest one is our complete street on Metro drive in Nanaimo kind of in the Northern end of Nanaimo. It was the street that didn't have any sidewalks, but it was a main walking route for kids into an elementary school. And a lot of people wanted to skip the highway and just go down this more residential area to get to a very commercial centre. So it was an unsafe place to walk. There weren't any pedestrian or cyclist infrastructure there. And so we identified it as a good place for a complete street upgrade. So it has now dedicated sidewalks on both sides and bike lanes. And it's got some landscaping to separate the cars. We've also upgraded the transit stops to make them more accessible well lit. So people feel safe and we have heard so many great things about that. And it's just completing phase two phase one opened earlier this year, and we've heard so many great things.

We have a counter that's about to be put online at one end of that street. So I'll have the numbers for that shortly, but that's going to be a really good gauge if we upgrade the infrastructure, people will use it. Obviously they're not using it before because they don't feel safe and there's nothing there for them. So if we upgrade it, they will come. Absolutely. As you said, we also recently did an upgrade, a cycling upgrade on our front street, which is main downtown. And we have a counter on there and it's been incredible to watch the numbers grow on there, just steadily. It gets more and more use as people become more familiar with it. And of course, as the weather had turned, now it's getting a little bit cooler, but throughout the summer, it was great to see all the cyclists and the numbers keep going up.

Leanne Buck: In terms of another pilot program actually, or another program that the city has going on. It's a pilot program to offer transit shuttle and bike valley service to special events within the city that's underway. I've seen this talked about in other plans, I've not seen it actually implemented. So what inspired the launch of this initiative and how is it being received?

Lainy Stevenson: Yeah, this has been so much fun to be a part of this project. And it's been really well received by the community. The idea behind it was that people want more options to get places, but they either aren't familiar enough with it or they don't feel like it's readily available to them. So what we did is we gave it to them essentially. So we at special events in the city in the summer, we created a bike valley in conjunction with a couple of different bike valley companies. And we also provided direct shuttles to these events so that people could have the option. And there's no excuse. It's very easy for them. It was free to use, which was great. And this is all under a council direction. And we were able to provide that service to four different, special events. And actually we've got a couple more coming up.

It was so successful that we wanted to add a few more on and we've got a couple coming in the fall. One is play on, which is a massive hockey street hockey tournament. That's coming this weekend. We're really excited about it. And then the truth and reconciliation day, we're going to have both the shuttle and a bike valley available there as well. So the idea behind it is that we worked with BC transit and the RDN to provide a free shuttle from different locations around town. We did a mall in the North end and then the university, which is central. And so people could walk there, bike there, or drive there and park, and then hop on a shuttle to go directly down to the event so that we don't have. And that alleviates a number of different things. People are not being as reliant on their own personal vehicles.

And parking has always been a challenge downtown, of course, with these special events where we're seeing an influx of a thousand plus people. And yeah, it was really, really well received. Our first day was on Canada day. And we saw, I think one of the buses had almost 40 people on it from the Northern end and our bike valley, which for those people who might not be familiar with what a bike valley is, it's essentially the same idea as a car valley. So there's a fenced off area with some racks to hang bikes on or areas to park bikes. You ride your bike up, you give it to the attendee, they give you a ticket or a tag with a number on it. And they park your bike for you for free. We had it for free somewhere by charge. And then you go about your day or you go to the event, you enjoy it.

And then when you're done, you come back and you collect your bike and you bike home. It's a really great idea to provide incentive to people. And one of the barriers that we heard from people and why they weren't riding their bikes to events or even to downtown or anywhere in the city is that they didn't feel like they had a safe place to put their bike because of course bikes are, they can be really expensive these days. And you don't want to take that risk by just locking it up to a bike rack and have somebody cut your lock and ride away with it. So this was a way to directly combat a few things, that safety aspect of it and that availability of it and the convenience as well. So our first day again, on Canada day, we saw we had a capacity of a hundred bikes and at one point we had 94 bikes and we were thinking, "Oh boy, are we going to reach capacity?" Yeah.

Leanne Buck: Well, that would be a good story in itself, bike valet reaches capacity. You have to turn people away.

Lainy Stevenson: Exactly, exactly. It'd be a good and a bad thing, I think. But yeah, it was so good to have it there. And people were so positive about it. They thought, "Wow, what a great thing for us to have." If they didn't have the bike valley, there certainly wouldn't have been 94 bike parking stalls within the park. We have a couple of bike racks, but again, it wouldn't have felt as safe and been as available to people. So we've expanded that and we're going to do a couple more events and next year, who knows it might become a more permanent thing. I think the pilot idea behind these, the alternate forms of transportation was to prove that there is a need and a want, the community wants to see these things. So now we've proved it with this summer's test. And next year, maybe it'll be a little bit more permanent. Maybe we'll get a bike valley. Like what Victoria did. They've got a bike valet all throughout the summer, Monday to Sunday, I think all day, every day, it's just a permanent fixture downtown this summer.

Leanne Buck: Oh, that I didn't know either. So I guess so much of this when we're talking about it is the promotion of all these services and how do we get the word out there that all this is available?

Lainy Stevenson: So this has been a big learning curve for us, because it's a new thing. But one of the lessons that I've learned is that it is really important to get the word out because of course, if people don't know it's there, then they're not going to come. So what we did was we did a dedicated website on our City of Nanaimo webpage and we also did add advertisements. So in the local radios and newspapers, and then we also reached out to different community groups that we different cycling community groups. We also leaned on the regional district of Nanaimo who provides the transit service to send it out to through their social media channels. We put it on our social media channels and then the big one is just people seeing it, just being visible at the event.

So when they see that big tent that has bike valet they think, "Oh, okay." The first time they see it, they think, "Okay, what is that? Maybe they drove to the event." So they come and they ask questions and we tell them, and we tell them what events we're going to be at. And then, so next time they'll know that we're going to be there and they'll choose to bike. So it's a big part of it is word of mouth, I think too. And just being as visible as possible to let people know that we are available there and when we're going to be available.

Leanne Buck: So my last question for you in terms of accessibility and inclusiveness, what measures is the city taking to ensure that the infrastructure that design and services are available to people of all ages and abilities?

Lainy Stevenson: This is a really big focus of our city plan, making sure that our city is able to accommodate all ages and all abilities. And of course, a big step towards that is building infrastructure to accommodate everybody. So part of my role, I work a lot with our accessibility and inclusion committee and we take recommendations from them on how we can implement different things. So one of the most recent things that we worked on with them as example is our transit stop accessibility working group. So we met with a number of different stakeholders. So the city of Nanaimo, regional district, BC transit, and then some members of our committee to talk about how we can make transit stops more accessible. And so we did a number of site visits with people from the board who had mobility devices and had low vision and we were able to listen to them and hear about their experiences.

And then we also looked at best practices. We took a look at what TransLink is doing in Vancouver and BC transit also has some really good accessibility guidelines as well. And we took a look at different transit stops around the city and identified, okay, what can we do better? We recognized that a lot of these things are existing conditions. So how can we retrofit existing transit stops and how can we build things better? So that was a big part of our Metro street, complete street upgrade was making sure that our transit stops were more accessible, making sure that there was some tactile paving and way finding that there was information available for, like you said, all ages and all abilities. And that there's visibility between the bus drivers and anybody using a mobility aid device. And if they're back at the transit shelter. So that was a really great experience. And it's definitely something that we are focusing and not just our transit stops, but all aspects of our transportation system. So our committee is really helpful and provides a lot of guidance for us in that area.

Leanne Buck: I can imagine. So the committee, is that a long term committee? Is that a committee that's sort of in standing and is brought together before infrastructure, before design takes place or before things get built? Are they their long term? And is it changing? Are you looking for new people to join the committee? That's interesting to me as well.

Lainy Stevenson: Well, it changes with the council because it is a committee. So I believe I want to see there's eight members. I could be wrong on that, but as council, our new council comes in as the elections are coming up next month, we are going to get a whole new committee. Well maybe some members may come back, but they stand for the full four years. So yeah, they're there long term. Some of our projects take longer than four years. They're pretty big, but they're there as part of the planning of it through the actual infrastructure installation and then afterwards. So just recently last month, once phase one of our Metro drive complete street was finished. We took one of our members out there to take a look at some of the way finding. And they were able to provide a couple of different pieces of feedback for us to just slightly shift based on what they had said. And that's going to become a part of our best practice so.

Leanne Buck: I love that. I can't say I've been in an engagement process, where there's been a longstanding committee on accessibility. So again, that's very inspiring to me. So thank you so much, Lainy. I'm feeling inspired by this conversation. I think Nanaimo is doing a lot of great things and you're doing a lot of things and I can imagine you're very pleased to be part of the group playing a role. So I just want to know, I always am curious to know, I work with engineers, I work with planners. What is it about your job that keeps you inspired that keeps you engaged in your every day?

Lainy Stevenson: Yeah, that's a great question. I'm always happy to go to work. As I said earlier, I'm so grateful to live in a community that I actually work for. So I get to know my neighbors and I get to talk to different organizations and I'm part of different organizations myself. And I find that really valuable and I'm able to take all the information that I have in my day to day life and implement it into my actual work life. And so I'm really grateful that I'm able to do that. I'm also really passionate about active transportation. I'm a cyclist myself. I love walking places. I have a dog, so I'm always looking for new trails to take her down.

And I always have my planner cap on and I'm thinking about, "Oh, there's a route in that pavement there it's not very accessible." If somebody has mobility aid or is trying to roll down that they aren't going to be able to. So I love having that lens. Sometimes it's hard to turn off, but yeah, I do at a core level, believe that choosing more sustainable options for transportation is going to help in our climate crisis. Of course, we know that cycling takes a lot less greenhouse gases uses a lot less greenhouse gases than our vehicles do. So, and of course, walking and cycling our none. So I'm really passionate about all of that. And I really love my job. I love working for this city and I'm happy to be a part of this greater thing.

Leanne Buck: Well, I think that you are, and you're definitely contributing to a healthier, happier community in Nanaimo. So thank you so much. It's been my pleasure speaking with you and thank you for listening to the Uplift Community Podcast. Have an amazing day and an uplifting week ahead.

Lainy Stevenson: Thanks so much.

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