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Active Transportation Insights from a Planner Who Walks the Talk

In this episode, we welcome Tyler Thomson, Associate and Senior Transportation Planner with Bunt and Associates, to talk about how he uses active transportation in his daily life in addition to working in the active transportation field. 
Tyler walks the talk. He has commuted by cycling, walking, transit, or a combination of for many years. His personal choice for actively getting around augments his extensive sustainable transportation planning experience that includes working with private developers, public authorities, community organizations, and the public.


Leanne Buck:    Tyler. Let's start at the top. What is your definition of active transportation?

Tyler Thomson:    While there's the technical definition of active transportation, which basically traditionally is being any form of human powered mobility. So people who walk or roll or take a bicycle in order to get from their home to where it is that they're going, either to work, school, or recreationally. And now active transportation has evolved to include even more dynamic ways of moving that aren't entirely all human powered. Including things such as micro mobility, E-scooters, E-bikes E-skateboards, and the likes of that.


Leanne Buck:    When we talk about active transportation, I just have to ask you from the layman's point of view, is that a term that you feel is understood in communities outside of the transportation or urban planning profession?


Tyler Thomson:    I thought it was. When I first started it made sense to me, but I am involved directly in that work. And actually the first time I realized that maybe it wasn't a common term for the general public was doing some early public engagement in one of my first active transportation planning projects. And people were asking the question, "What does that mean?" And I think it's maybe stems from the fact that when people hear the word transportation, they think trucks, they think cars, they think traffic, and they don't necessarily think of walking as transportation, or maybe even cycling for that matter. Yeah, it's not something that is actually a widely known term and maybe that needs to change.


Leanne Buck:    Yeah, definitely. Good point. In terms of how we use the terms in the planning and design industry, as compared to how we communicate to the public, can be two different things sometimes I think.

Tyler Thomson:    Absolutely.

Leanne Buck:    Yeah. When it comes to your passion about active transportation, I'm really interested. Can you tell us about this and maybe just tell us why you're so passionate about actively moving about?

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah. I think, for me, my passion actually stems from urban design. Early on I've always been interested in cities and the design of cities and public spaces. And a lot of those public spaces are places where people walk and places where people move around. And so my interest in the transportation part of that is understanding the pedestrian realm, the public realm. As I got into the industry and became a transportation professional, I realized that it actually included even more aspects of transportation. It includes road design, but also cycling facilities. And so I like to blend that interest in urban design with the functionality of making transportation systems better in cities.

Leanne Buck:    Nice, I like that. When we're talking about cities, or let's put active transportation, active modes, mobility, context of place. So we're talking, there's big cities, we have suburbs, small town, rural. What are some of the opportunities and challenges people face depending on where they live?

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah, that's an excellent question. I think, again, cities is where it starts. I think when you think of people, or at least when I do think of people walking and cycling, it's usually in a city. And what's in a city? There's places. People live, people work, people shop in cities, and they're built up in dense, multi-use forms that are compact and walkable and easy to get around. But not everybody lives in those kinds of contexts. And that's something that we've been learning on a lot of projects recently actually is about that rural or regional context with active transportation. Because, well, even for myself, I live in a quasi suburban, rural area in Greater Victoria, where there are some connections around for walking and cycling, but then it's broken up. The challenges are making sure that you've got those connected and continuous routes that people can feel safe, comfortable, and even enjoyed themselves on.

Leanne Buck:    Do you make choices ... I guess this is the thing, do you make choices based on where you live whether it be, "Okay, I'm going to choose to ride my bike to work." Even if I'm out in the suburbs, because I can make my way there. But maybe active transportation isn't used, say, to go to the grocery store because the town's trails or the roads from your home to the grocery store, for instance, it may not have safe routes. Would that be one example of where we have options to use active transportation and where we don't?

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah, absolutely. And I guess maybe back to just the first part of your question, do we choose? Even a bigger aspect of that is that some people choose to live somewhere based on what transportation choices there might be around them. That certainly was the case for myself and my family. We chose to live in places that we were able to get around by walking and cycling easily. And that's kind of changed as we've moved from place to place. And now that we live somewhere that we don't have all the same transportation choices, we have to adapt. Yes, definitely. When you make a trip to the grocery store you've got to think about what kind of a load can you carry. And so you actually might even adopt, if you're going to take a bike, you might get a cargo bike to be able to make those trips a little bit more easy and plan your routes around that as well.

Leanne Buck:    Okay, so the actual type of bike you have or your form of active transportation certainly can help there.

I hear a lot about equity in active transportation. We hear the term equity and I've had questions about, well, do you mean equality? And so I just have this question for you. Maybe you can just explain to our listeners what equity in active transportation means.

Tyler Thomson:    Sure. Yeah, and I think it's definitely a term that's become more prominent in recent times, and for very good reason. When I think about it when I think about active transportation, to me automatically it starts to allude to the all ages and abilities mantra. About making sure that all people are able to have the same type of access to active transportation modes and facilities. But I think it needs to be broadened a bit as well to really fully encompass equity lens, by also accounting for the socioeconomic factors that many different people have.

Leanne Buck:    Going to say, there are the folks that either perhaps can't afford a car, or we've had conversations before, Tyler, where folks can't afford a bike. And so what are some of the planning and design principles put in place to accommodate folks from that lens, where a bike may be difficult to acquire, through to a vehicle being difficult to acquire. Are there planning and design considerations to get those folks to alternate modes of transportation as well?

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah, I think it's more planning and policy related than it is design related. Because, I mean, the design aspect of it is where you want to get all ages and abilities. That includes all types of people across society, but that doesn't address the design part of it. It doesn't address making sure that people have equal access to the transportation modes that you might want to be using.

City policies and programs, where perhaps there's cheaper bikes available, that are maybe a subsidized program funded through transportation initiatives in a city. Making sure maybe there's free or subsidized bike share programs in certain areas of the city, not all that are market priced, if you're talking about getting on bikes. Ensuring that its related people walk to transit, having subsidized transit amenities and passes as well, to be able to get people walking to transit as well.

Leanne Buck:    Yeah, I like that you've brought this up, because I think it's an important consideration when we're talking about active transportation. It's not just about getting on a bike. It's not just about designing a road to accommodate bikes for young users up to older users. There's this social lens that needs to be placed on it. Moving away from the social lens and maybe into the geography of our country. Canada's winters can be harsh. And is it realistic to think or are active transportation planners hoping to get people using active transportation throughout the year? Or is this part-time?

Tyler Thomson:    Absolutely.

Leanne Buck:    What's your feeling on this?

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah. I mean, in a utopian view of it, everybody would ditch their cars and be able to have access to and use active transportation or sustainable modes of transportation 365 days a year. But as you pointed out, our climate in Canada can be a challenge for the bulk of the year. We're pretty fortunate where we live in this part of the region, here in Southern Vancouver Island and as well in Metro Vancouver, to have a bit of a more temperate climate throughout the year. However, I think people have maybe heard that it rains a bit here as well, especially through the winter. And so yeah, definitely planners think about how can we get more people out and about during those more challenging times of the year. Yeah.

Leanne Buck:    Okay. So you're out and about, Tyler, in the winter too?

Tyler Thomson:    Yes.

Leanne Buck:    Give us some ideas, give us some how-to or best practice for still choosing to ride your bike, or running to work, or how are you going to do that during winter, rainy months?

Tyler Thomson:    You need to be prepared. You need to have the gear and you need to plan your routes, depending on if there might be snow or wet conditions, and make sure that you're taking the safest route possible. But have comfortable, warm, weatherproof gear, reflectivity on your clothing and on your bike, as well as having lights, especially when it's darker in the morning and dark when you come home. You need to be visible and you need to see, those are the most important parts.

Leanne Buck:    Yeah, definitely important. Are there any apps, have you seen apps or information on municipal websites about routes, safe routes, either to schools or major centres, anything like that? Has that been something you've come across?

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah, it has from time to time. There are not necessarily municipalities, but maybe third-party organizations, public groups that have tried to provide more information about cycling routes, not just in one municipality, but in a broader area. But there are actually, again, in the region and thinking of the regional context, we have regional districts in British Columbia, where I live, is in the Capital Regional District in Victoria, which encompasses over 13 member municipalities. And every single one of those municipalities has trail and bike route information. And they synthesize it together, but it's not necessarily as user-friendly as an app. I think that there's certainly maybe a market for preparing something that's not just something you use on your computer, but something that you might use when you're on the go. You come to a junction, "Oh no. Where do I go now?"

Leanne Buck:    Yeah. Well, that tends to be my challenges, is where are they when you're actually on the route?


Tyler Thomson:    Yes.

Leanne Buck:    No knowing, do I turn left or do I turn-

Tyler Thomson:    Wayfinding signage.

Leanne Buck:    Wayfinding signage. There you go.

Tyler Thomson:    That's important.

Leanne Buck:    That would come in really handy in lots of areas. You and I also both know, based on our work on a recent project together, that micro mobility, mobility scooters, E-scooters, E-bikes, there's more and more on the roads these days. And there are some municipalities who have pilot projects in place throughout BC, not a lot, maybe six or seven at this point, where it's legal to use these scooters and micro mobility devices. I don't call them devices, but what do you call them, Tyler? Micro mobility modes.

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah. I mean, devices, I don't know. That sounds pretty technical.

Leanne Buck:    Right.

Tyler Thomson:    I guess that's the term, maybe there's a better term.

Leanne Buck:    Both terms here. Active transportation and mobility devices.

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah, it sounds ... Let's just get out there.

Leanne Buck:    Let's just get moving.

Tyler Thomson:    Let's just move. Let's just move.

Leanne Buck:    So how is the micro mobility changing the approach to active transportation planning and design though?

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah, that's a very topical point, Leanne. There seems to be a new type of device coming online every week or day even. There's hover boards, hover scooters, there's the single-wheel mobility wheels, skateboards, scooters. You touched on a lot of them, and they're new. And so we don't know a lot about them, but people are using them. And the reason they're using is they want to find new ways of getting around that is more efficient, but also fun and safe. And so I think it's more about having exposure to them and understanding how they work to be able to understand how to plan for them. I don't think that really just necessarily banning them right off the bat without knowing anything about them is a great thing, but we should know more about them before we know how to design and plan for them.

Leanne Buck:    That's an evolving topic, for sure.

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah. And they do continue to be somewhat compatible with one another, so using similar facilities. Usually a multi-use path is a great example of a type of facility that can accommodate any of these types of devices or conventional bikes, and people who are walking or using pushing strollers and wheelchairs and stuff like that.

Leanne Buck:    The multi-use path, again, for those outside of the technical world, the multi-use path is?

Tyler Thomson:    It's really just as it sounds, it's a pathway for multiple uses and/or users, but the key defining features that it's separated from the roadway.

Yeah, exactly. And that's the safety aspect. It's either, maybe it might be on the same alignment as a roadway, but it's separated from traffic, either with a planted boulevard. Or in our region here it's often, and in another regions of BC, it's often combined with an old railway alignment, a trail that's being added alongside a railway or sometimes alongside a highway. It's a path to get people around by multiple different uses.

Leanne Buck:    Do you see active transportation continuing to be a trend within both government? And do you feel like funding will be there to implement the planning that's going on these days?

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah, I hope that it's not just a trend. I hope that it continues to trend though. I hope that it's not a flash in the pan. I don't think it is. I think it can only increase in its uptake, but funding is a major part of that. Municipalities have budgets, and the budgets allocated to active transportation infrastructure is usually pretty small. And so governments, the province, the Canadian government, are providing grants, opportunities for active transportation, planning, and infrastructure that municipalities can apply for. But the municipalities themselves also need to think about what are their priorities. A lot of them say in their transportation master plans or official community plans that pedestrians and cyclists are at the top of the hierarchy and vehicles are down at the bottom. However, funding is always put towards the other end of it. And it needs to be realigned to reflect that.

Leanne Buck:    I was just going to say, Tyler, that's so encouraging, and then discouraging at the same time.


Tyler Thomson:    Yeah.

Leanne Buck:    I guess all we can do is continue to be advocates for the active transportation and continuing to push in terms of communication, push in terms of being creative in designs where budgets definitely exist. So definitely lots to think about. Tyler, thank you so much. You've given us lots of thoughtful insights to this topic. Earlier I mentioned that you walked the talk and that you've been commuting by active modes for many years. What instigated this choice for you, and what keeps you choosing active modes as your number one way to get around?

Tyler Thomson:    Yeah, at the beginning you asked what my passion was about it. And I touched on urban design really is where I got started, being interested in it. But my passion and what keeps me going is the bottom line, it's the right thing to do for myself, for my family, for my community, for society. For the environment, the socioeconomic benefits and health benefits, the environmental benefits of active transportation can't be understated. For me it's just very important to do my part and make sure that I'm reducing my vehicle footprint as much as possible.

Leanne Buck:    It's not just a job for you. You're lucky, you're one of the lucky ones, because you're working in a field that you're passionate about and that you're able to actually take part in everyday in your life. So that's cool, not everybody has that.

Tyler Thomson:    I feel lucky. Thanks.

Leanne Buck:    Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Tyler, it was my pleasure talking to you today. Thank you for joining us, and thank you for listening to the UpLift Community podcast. Have an amazing day and an uplifting week ahead.

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