Of Federal Budgets and Kids in the Street

Kids in streetThis post started out as a reserved and detailed analysis of the 2016 Canadian federal budget through the lenses of mobility and place.

And then I took a break from writing and went out with my five-year-old son to practice riding his bike.  And that’s when this post changed.

On the fringe of downtown, our relatively quiet neighbourhood exists as an island between major arterial roads.  Not for everyone’s taste and sure there’s the sound of traffic, but our area has amazing access by walking, bike and bus to almost everything we need in life.  It also has a collection of neighbours that know and care for each other.   I’ve joked before that I live where I do because it’s the closest thing to living on Sesame Street I could find in Victoria, B.C. and–minus the singing alphabet letters and the odd Snuffleupagus–I still stand by that.

Anyway, there we were, my son riding his training-wheel-clad two wheeler on the sidewalk and me loping along beside him. Near the intersection at the farthest extent of our street he stopped, turned to me, looked up and asked “Can I go into the street to turn around?”

And that’s when it hit me.  I spend my work life talking about mobility and transportation layers, land use integration, pedestrian connectivity and the fundamentals of making transit systems work.  And when I’m not being a planner, mom or partner, I spend much of my volunteer time talking and writing about equitable distribution of public space and creating connected, resilient communities.  This is all well meaning and necessary and feeds my passions and sense of right livelihood.

But my son’s question was like a sucker punch of reality to all this theory.  Because it was the very real, very immediate object lesson that the street is the place where he feels he needs to request permission to go. That it is the place he is barred from freely accessing on his own.

The world might eventually be his oyster, but right now the sizable chunk of our community land area represented by roads is effectively off limits.

“Watch out.” “Hold my hand.” “Look both ways.” “Make sure this lady sees us.” “Hit the button.” “Make sure they’re stopping for us.” “Wait at the corner for me.” “You be the leader and tell me if it’s safe to go.” We have fun and do many amazing things together, and I do my best to let him be as independent and autonomous as possible. But this is the litany that acts as the counterpoint to our time together.

So my epiphany with my son the other afternoon had two effects on me:

One, it made me realize that Open Streets projects–such as one proposed to take place in Victoria this summer*–have a dimension I hadn’t fully internalized.  Yes, these Open Streets events are about making streets places for people as well as cars, experiencing cities differently, and promoting equity, community, and active transportation.

However, for citizens like my son, Open Streets events are also totally, completely about reclaiming elemental freedom and power.  I knew that in my head before, but now I feel it in my gut.

Two, if the 2016 Canadian federal budget begins to shift our investment priorities to fund the kind of infrastructure needed to make communities more safely, beautifully and healthfully function by means other than obsessive over-reliance on single occupant vehicles, then I say bring it on.

The budget announced March 22 devotes a notable chunk of spending to infrastructure in two phases, with the first phase focused on rehabilitating failing elements and building a base for a further second phase.  According to infrastructure-related section of the published budget,** phase one priorities include elements pretty integral to mobility, community and addressing climate change:

  • $3.4 billion over three years to upgrade and improve public transit systems across Canada;
  • $5.0 billion over five years for investments in water, wastewater and green infrastructure projects across Canada; and
  • $3.4 billion over five years for social infrastructure, including affordable housing, early learning and child care, cultural and recreational infrastructure, and community health care facilities on reserve.
Infrastructure Plan Spending Chart

Proposed phase one infrastructure spending by type (Source: 2016 Canadian Federal Budget, http://www.budget.gc.ca/2016/docs/plan/budget2016-en.pdf)

This investment would layer on top of a number of other infrastructure funding programs already in place.

Other items related to mobility in the budget include funding to maintain and upgrade rail services, to further electric vehicle research and alternative fuel infrastructure, and to develop regulations and standards for transportation emissions and clean transportation technology.  From my work with smaller towns and Aboriginal communities, I was also pleased to see improving high-speed broadband coverage for rural communities (which is key to larger connection and access goals) and investment in the areas of education, health, employment training and infrastructure for First Nations communities.

The general nature of the budget does leave me hankering for the details now and in the longer term.  I’m especially curious how new transit capital investment will line up with operating funding required to improve service levels and how it might leverage or be complemented by pedestrian, cycling and other mobility infrastructure improvements.  I also wonder about the possibilities for using new affordable housing funding to further improve connection and sense of place within existing neighbourhoods.

Finally, I hope that the government considers specific allocation for transportation as part of its First Nations programs.  One challenge I’ve experienced working with Aboriginal communities who want to invest in transit is that they wind up cobbling together funding for transportation out of bits and pieces of health, education and recreation programs.  It can be hard to keep this patchwork of mobility funding whole as programs and administrative staff change.  Education, health and employment are key facets to any community and how people will access these programs needs to be considered and secured.

Federal Budget Transit allocation

Proposed new Public Transit Infrastructure Fund allocation by jurisdiction (Source: 2016 Canadian Federal Budget, http://www.budget.gc.ca/2016/docs/plan/budget2016-en.pdf)

Despite these questions,  as I noted in my post written shortly after the election, I find the renewed focus on transit and climate change now outlined in this budget heartening. While no doubt the new Public Transit Infrastructure Fund will help make massive capital-intensive projects happen in larger centres, I’m also hopeful that it will create the base required to move sustainable mobility forward in smaller and medium-sized communities.

In B.C., a number of the most populous and fastest growing regions outside of TransLink’s Metro Vancouver are also the ones that have transit maintenance facilities that are either already completely maxed out or getting precipitously close to capacity.  Since substantially improving service levels will require space to store and maintain additional vehicles, federal funding could be key in enabling the expanded facilities that need to be in place to make better transit happen.

Similarly, other transit infrastructure investment sets the stage for more effective and useful service in a range of community sizes and has potential positive impacts across the broader spectrum of mobility.  Investments in major stops, transit priority measures and rights-of-way like bus lanes and queue jumps makes transit more reliable and attractive, can buffer sidewalks from other traffic, provide the opportunity to improve cycling and car share facilities in tandem, and can improve overall pedestrian connection.

Overall, I believe this budget begins to set the stage for improving overall transportation choice in our communities and that is a key step in reducing reliance on automobiles and re-balancing our road networks.  It is a key step in building the kinds of communities where my son has more freedom to be a citizen on his street.

It appears to me that the much of the negative reaction to the budget has come from some  Canadians who have said that it creates a future financial burden for children today and those children yet to come.

Well, it also seems that the prosperity that our generations-to-date have enjoyed based on cities and lifestyles designed around unquestioned devotion to automobiles and fossil fuels has already taken away our children’s right to a stable climate and neighbourhood streets they don’t need to fear.

Short term financial debt on top of that to write a different sort of future–one where a kid can feel they can ride their bike on their street without asking permission and where older generations can continue to viably live in communities when they are no longer capable of driving–doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

A few notes:

*Open Streets: Held in communities around the world, you can find out more about Open Streets initiatives at the Open Streets Project.

For those in the Greater Victoria region, look for updates in the months ahead from the Greater Victoria Placemaking Network (GVPN) and the Capital Regional District on an Open Streets initiative in the planning stages for our area.  Intended to be organized at the community level with guidance and technical support from the GVPN, members of community groups across the region interested in potentially leading an Open Streets event in their neighbourhood should consider reaching out to the GVPN via its contact page.)

**Canada’s 2016 Federal Budget:  If you’re looking for more details on the budget, the online version is well indexed and a great place to start.  CBC Radio’s political affairs show The House also featured an interview with Finance Minister Bill Morneau and in depth coverage and analysis, and you can listen to that March 26, 2016 episode here.

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