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Walk and Roll: Making Active Transportation Work in Small, Rural Communities

By Sue Shikaze - Health Promoter, Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit

Active transportation (AT) refers to all human-powered forms of transportation, usually walking and cycling, but can also include wheelchairs, in-line skating, skateboarding, cross-country skiing, and even kayaking. It is any trip made for the purposes of getting to a particular destination - to work, to school, to the store or to visit friends.

Small, rural communities have different realities than their urban counterparts, especially when it comes to active transportation. Most have limited financial resources, but extensive road infrastructure to maintain. Rural geography generally means large distances and low density. The prevailing attitudes regarding transportation may be quite focused on cars. Finally, most evidence on AT is urban based, leaving a gap in knowledge.

But, implementation of AT initiatives is achievable in small rural communities!

In small, rural communities, AT can contribute to the community’s health by providing a way for people to build physical activity into their daily lives. But it is also an important economic development feature. Walkable and bikeable communities make great tourist destinations, and contribute to quality of life – important for attracting and retaining residents and businesses. Many studies also show that people tend to spend more money in a place that encourages walking. It’s important to also remember that many people do not or cannot drive due to age, disability, income. Therefore, making AT safe and accessible provides them with important transportation and mobility options.

Let’s take a look at what’s happening in one rural area. The County of Haliburton is located about 2 hours north of Toronto. It covers an area of approximately 4,500 sq km (it takes over an hour to drive east to west and north to south) and has a year round population of about 17,000 that more than triples in the summer. The county has a very high proportion of seniors. There are two main village hubs, Haliburton and Minden.

The Communities in Action Committee (CIA) www.communitiesinaction.ca is a community-based group that was formed in 2004, and includes representatives from public health, community economic development, community development planning, seniors, and county roads. The CIA promotes active transportation as a way to create a healthy, active community. They do this through activities that include advocacy, partnership building, planning and research, influencing policy, education and promotion, evaluation.

A primary focus of CIA has been to build partnerships with local municipalities, who play an important role in creating a healthy active community through creating supportive land use policies, implementing plans and on-the-ground changes. The CIA’s advocacy targets municipal elected officials and is intended to ‘make the case’ for and raise awareness of the benefits of investing in AT. They communicate regularly with councils through regular reports, updates and delegations, and engage them through events such as workshops and community walkabouts. The CIA has found that it has been important for them to learn about municipal priorities, and to frame their messages to address these as much as possible.

The CIA has done a great deal of community based research, with strategies that have included surveys, focus groups, observational studies and walk audits. This research has informed the development of AT plans for both Haliburton and Minden, which have been provided to municipalities as resources. These plans were developed by the CIA, rather than commissioned by the county or municipality, which is more typical. This provides a great example of how in a rural community, an external group can enhance municipal capacity.

In order to garner municipal support, it is important to build community support and awareness in order to demonstrate community interest in AT. The CIA’s promotional initiatives address AT in a rural area by focusing messaging on village ‘hubs’ rather than whole county. They developed a ‘doable’ AT message by acknowledging that people need to drive to town due to distance, but encouraging them to then park and walk once they got there. The CIA has developed maps and signs to encourage walking in town, and since 2009 has partnered with the County to promote share the road messages to motorists and cyclists.

So how has the community improved for AT?

The County and municipalities have made many infrastructure improvements that support AT. While the CIA doesn’t ‘do’ infrastructure, they do help build awareness and momentum for improvements, and sometimes help provide a vision. For example, in 2007, the CIA contracted a landscape architect to do illustrations for some key problem locations in Haliburton. The municipality later hired that same person to develop detailed plans for streetscape improvements in the Village. This work, completed in 2012, saw major improvements that were done in conjunction with Hydro One’s work to bury their lines. Two streets were entirely redone, including new curbing, sidewalks, decorative brickwork, bike racks, benches, pedestrian buildouts, tree plantings and new lighting.


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York St, Haliburton, before streetscape

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York St, Haliburton, after streetscape

In Minden, streetscape improvements included widening sidewalks, coloured concrete, and new planters. The Riverwalk trail was completed, including a new pedestrian bridge, shelters, benches and lighting. These changes have made the streets more aesthetically pleasing and safer for walking, as well as improved connectivity.

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Gull River, Minden, before Riverwalk

 

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Gull River, Minden, with Riverwalk and Logger’s Crossing pedestrian bridge

 

The County has been paving road shoulders on major road projects since 2008, with a total of about 65.5 km completed. Their 4-year Capital Works plan continues this work into the future. The CIA has strongly advocated for paved shoulders over the years.

The policy landscape has changed too. Prior to 2010 only one Official Plan (OP) referenced cycling. Now, all official plans have policies specific to cycling, active transportation, healthy communities, and walking. The CIA has provided policy recommendations during all OP reviews, which were sometimes added verbatim and other times captured ‘in spirit’.

Yes, change can happen! In 2004, active transportation was not part of anyone’s conversation, at a community or local government level. However, an evaluation conducted by the CIA in 2011 showed that there has been a cultural shift over time, and recognition of the benefits of AT, both in the community and among municipalities.

“The population is aging and so this (active transportation) has become an economic strategy for our municipality – making it a destination for retirees and creating places for walking has influenced our whole decision-making.”

“People now have a place to go to walk and they may even go further than they did before. Just having the infrastructure gets people out.”

The CIA continues to look for new ways to continue to improve conditions for active transportation. They recently did a temporary pop-up traffic calming demonstration, and are wrapping up a partnership project with Active Neighbourhoods Canada that looked at how a local road could be a more complete street.

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Traffic calming pop up Demonstration –  without

 

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Traffic calming pop up Demonstration – with

The CIA sees active transportation as a key element of a vibrant community that offers great quality of life for people of all ages and abilities, making it a great place to live, work, play, learn, visit and invest.

Some lessons learned by the CIA over the years include:

• Build partnerships with multiple sectors

• Public Health is a key partner

• Take evidence-informed action

• Relate the message to municipal priorities

• Work from the top down (e.g. influence policy) and bottom up (e.g. community awareness raising)

• Identify and promote a message realistic to rural communities

• Find opportunities to share and exchange knowledge

For more info on cycling in Haliburton County visit www.cyclehaliburton.ca

 

haliburton

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