Supporting an ‘active’ recovery means improving the accessibility of outdoor spaces

The government’s investment in active transportation should benefit rural, accessible outdoor spaces
Photo: City of Toronto, 2017.
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Before Catherine McKenna, minister of infrastructure and communities, announced her planned departure from politics, she outlined significant investments to support active transportation across Canada. At the time few took notice. But four months later, this infusion of funding has taken on new importance as Canadians flock outdoors to reclaim their physical and mental health.

The funding includes $400 million to retrofit and develop new pathways, bike lanes, multi-use trails and sidewalks. The money will also support the government’s commitment to create an active transportation strategy — a first for Canada. This is exciting news, to be sure. But before supports are enacted to get more Canadians walking and wheeling, the government must consider several key issues.

First, the pandemic has complicated the tug of war between urban and rural investment in active transportation infrastructure. Based on population density, urban centres have naturally commanded the bulk of funds earmarked for improving active built environments. However, societal changes brought on by the pandemic have significantly influenced how Canadians walk, cycle, shop, work, exercise, and engage with the outdoors.

COVID-19 has spurred an exodus of both families and businesses from urban centres to suburbs, small towns, and rural areas. Over a 12-month period ending January 2021, Statistics Canada reported a record-breaking loss of people from urban centres as people continue to seek affordable living outside of main cities.

The Canadian Parks and Recreation Association found over 70 per cent of Canadians appreciate access to parks and green spaces far more during COVID-19.

Conversely, smaller centres like Oshawa, Halifax, and others, saw record increases in population growth, primarily driven by the realization that working from home has become the norm in many sectors. The resulting impact is more demand for recreational and active transportation services outside of major centres, a trend that governments should not ignore as active transportation funds are distributed across the country.

Second, the pandemic has created more demand and strain on available outdoor spaces. A recent global study reported a 66 per cent increase in walking and 25 per cent increase in cycling during the pandemic. Closer to home, the Canadian Parks and Recreation Association found over 70 per cent of Canadians appreciate access to parks and green spaces far more during COVID-19 than ever before. With gyms slow to open in many jurisdictions and a fear of indoor fitness spaces persisting, about 69 per cent of Canadians planned to use trail systems and outdoor spaces well into the winter months, according to a national survey commissioned by Trans Canada Trail.

These considerable new demands on bike paths, trail systems, and related amenities (think trailside washrooms) require creative solutions, including that municipal policymakers and staff work closely with public health authorities to protect both trail users and the sustainability of green spaces.

Improving accessibility to active transportation options needs to be a core element of the government’s strategy.

Last, the government’s active transportation strategy needs to ensure new and retrofitted infrastructure is accessible to all. Statistics Canada estimates nearly six million Canadians aged 15 years and over live with a disability, including those requiring the use of a wheelchair, cane, or assisted walker. Caregivers pulling children in a wagon or pushing a stroller also benefit from accessible features such as ramps, widened sidewalks, paved trails, and curb cuts.

COVID-19 has magnified the lack of accessible physical activity opportunities. According to the Rick Hansen Foundation, the lack of physical accessibility in the built environment is a fundamental barrier to full participation in society. Improving accessibility to active transportation options needs to be a core element of the government’s strategy to ensure communities are more inclusive and equitable for every ability.

For the right reasons, Canadians and physical activity advocates have taken notice of the federal government's positive commitment to support active transportation. Walking, wheeling, and other forms of multi-modal transportation contribute to positive health outcomes such as cardiorespiratory fitness and improvements in mental and emotional health, reductions in transportation-related emissions, and a greater appreciation for the outdoors.

As the federal government rolls out its strategy, the challenge going forward will be to make active transportation opportunities equitable, accessible, and sustainable for all Canadians.

Joe Doiron has over 25 years of experience as a healthy public policy specialist in physical activity and recreation and is the 2019 recipient of the Chief Public Health Officer’s Medal for Canada. Benjamin Rempel has worked in health promotion and disease prevention for nearly 20 years and is an executive member of Health Promotion Ontario.
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