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Increasingly, urban dwellers are looking for new and more sustainable ways to move around their cities. Technologies like autonomous vehicles and electric scooters may be top of mind for urban planners, but social and cultural factors may be just as important in helping Canadian cities prepare for the future, according to a co-author of a new report from Transport Canada.

Julian Faid

Julian Faid

In the report, Julian Faid, a recent graduate of the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology in the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, looks at existing provincial policies such as regulatory documents, council motions and budgets in eight of Canada’s largest urban centres, including Edmonton, with an eye to providing an overview of current realities, and the challenges and potential solutions for the future of urban mobility in Canada.

One of the major takeaways, said Faid, is that no one is really leading the way on everything. For example, Vancouver’s SkyTrain is an excellent example of autonomous public transit, but the region’s dense urban development has led to significant congestion on Vancouver’s roads.

In Edmonton, partnerships with the University of Alberta in artificial intelligence and machine learning have put the city at the forefront of cutting edge transportation projects, but it can also be a challenging environment for innovation because of its deeply embedded car culture.

But as Faid pointed out, innovation isn’t always about new technology; sometimes it’s about finding different ways to look at existing problems.

“Innovation can be things like what the City of Edmonton planning department is doing,” he explained. “They are looking at all their policies through a gendered lens and asking: do these existing policies make sense for everyone if they are from the perspective of mostly white males from previous decades? That’s an innovative approach.”

As the report outlines, in 2015 Edmonton became the first major Canadian municipality to adopt the Vision Zero Strategy, which seeks to eliminate traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. As part of this initiative, the planning department began using a gender-based analysis approach to assess disparities in mobility for different groups of people.

“One of the major points for the conclusion of this report is that innovation can be asking different questions – or asking the same questions to different people.”

In collaboration with urban planning PhD student Bogdan Kapatsila and design master’s graduate Sarah Jackson, the Transport Canada report expands on Faid’s master’s thesis research by taking it from five to eight cities, creating a municipal innovation index and identifying areas of strength, weakness, opportunity and threat in each of the municipalities.

Faid, who boasts a background in improv theatre, comes to urban planning from an environmental sociology angle, which he said makes him an “odd duck” in the field. But it is this unique perspective that has allowed him to break new ground in terms of studying not only mobility innovation, but municipal planning cultures and the urban planning professionals who drive most of the decision-making.

Transport Canada took notice.

“I got an email with the most surprising opening line that I’ve ever seen in an email,” said Faid with a laugh. “It said, ‘I read your thesis.’”

Faid said he’s cautiously optimistic about the future of mobility innovation in Canada, although he believes change will be incremental.

“The best-case scenario, to be honest, may be a return to what worked in the past: dense, walkable neighbourhoods, and space-efficient transportation that moves many people around the city easily, efficiently and equitably.”

Canadian Urban Mobility 2.0 will be presented at the Conference Board of Canada national mobility roundtable on Feb. 15.

| By Donna McKinnon

Donna is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine. The University of Alberta is a Troy Media Editorial Content Provider Partner.

The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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