The following profile is from our Changemakers Series.
It's safety first for Anna Ho. The busy mother of three and part-time engineer is becoming known for her work in helping to make Edmonton's streets safer for active transportation. She's the current chair of Paths for People, a local transportation advocacy group. She recently treated community researcher Crystal Vanier and me to an interview at her Edmonton home.
Would you mind telling us what took you on this journey, personally? I'm a mother of three children who are currently six, eight, and ten years old. I got involved when my oldest started cycling on her own. There is nothing scarier than watching your child navigate the streets of Edmonton. It'd be nice to have neighbourhoods where children can walk and bike to school, to their friends' homes, around the neighbourhood, on their own, without having the feeling that it's too dangerous.
And what is Paths for People? We consider ourselves to be a small "a" advocacy group. We like to build relationships with different people, with different interests and varied points of view, for example, people involved in infrastructure design within the City of Edmonton and engineering or design firms, city council, health and wellness professionals, and community builders. Our board is currently made up of a pretty great group of people: Cheryl Trepanier has been a strong voice and advocate on safety and traffic issues for the community of Old Strathcona; Sandra Gaherty is a super talented and dedicated engineer; Dave Buchanan is fabulous to work with and dedicated to seeing a Ciclovia happen in Edmonton; Michael Phair is amazing and is our seasoned voice of reason; Sheila Pratt adds a lot of experience and practicality; Max Amerongen is a dedicated Edmontonian and community builder; and Conrad Nobert is hugely dedicated and comes up with a lot of the crazy ideas and vision. We all have different strengths, and we work really well together. We currently have somewhere between 400 and 500 active members, and we have about 800 on our email distribution list. We're growing quite quickly. There's quite an interest in the organization, given that we've really only been formally together since December 2015.
We're a fairly young organization. Before, we were informally known as the Edmonton Bike Coalition. When we re-branded into Paths for People, we wanted to broaden our focus so that we were more about active transportation and less about just bicycling. We wanted to focus our concerns around safety so that Edmontonians and visitors could feel comfortable walking, biking, roller-blading, whatever their non-motorized choice of transportation is, around the city.
What types of things has Paths for People done? One of our first events was called City for Life—that was last April—where we invited Gil Penalosa, who came and delivered a keynote talk at the downtown library to start the conversation of what active transportation brings to a city. The following day, we put together a workshop and invited leaders in Edmonton, in healthcare, in the community, on city council, in city administration, and in engineering design, to bring out different aspects that influence decisions around active transportation and active transportation infrastructure. We had people like Dr. Arya Sharma, the Canadian obesity expert from the University of Alberta; Dr. Doug Klein, a local Edmonton family physician and researcher at the university who looks at ways to increase activity in people's everyday lives; Dr. Rena LaFrance, a specialist in paediatric obesity from AHS; Mayor Iveson; city councillors; Dorian Wandzura, who was the head of transportation at the City at the time; as well as other leaders in city administration, leaders in engineering, leaders in design like Vivian Manasc, just a room full of amazing, dedicated people.
We have a number of projects that we're working on: Vision Zero, Minimum Grid, and Ciclovia, to name a few. We are heavily involved in the downtown minimum grid project that went to the Urban Planning Committee last week and passed unanimously at city council on October 11. We've been working on a letter campaign to show city council how many businesses support bike paths in the downtown. It is in our plan to work with the City and with the Alberta government on the 30-kilometre per hour speed limit in residential streets idea. We are also acting as a resource for community members, for things like neighbourhood renewal. We are a resource for the City when they are looking for input on things like the High Level Bridge, Engage 109, Imagine Jasper. And we're trying to feed into provincial and national networks on active transportation.
We're growing extremely quickly because there's a real need, and cities are now designing their infrastructure to accommodate people with all modes of transportation in mind.
What drove you to expand beyond just cycling? What was that bridge for you and the organization to active transportation? The final design for the 83rd Avenue cycle track resulted in much more than just a bike path. It showed that changing the infrastructure to include safe cycling lanes improved the feel of the street—the overall safety for both pedestrians and cyclists—and calmed traffic in the neighborhood. Designing good bike infrastructure is a design for active transportation that includes more than just biking.
How do you determine which projects to carry forward, now that you're becoming larger and larger? That's really hard. We've been trying to put together some strategic objectives for our group, and it's still a work in progress right now about how we decide those things. Sometimes they just come to us. Once City for Life had taken place, we started getting phone calls looking for our input. And then there's the energy that comes from our board to look at some projects.
You mentioned Ciclovia. What is that project? Ciclovia, or open streets, is where a street is closed off to motor vehicle traffic for a specific time period to make a temporary pedestrian and non-motorized vehicle zone. It is open to people to do as they wish—walk it, bike it, roller-blade it, skateboard it. There could be different areas, pop-up classes, yoga, art classes, all along the street.
They do it all over the world. In Bogota, I think they do it once a week, every Sunday. They hold them in big cities like L.A. to smaller centers like Thunder Bay. It's interesting that when the idea of ciclovia is first introduced, people are dead set against it. There are all sorts of reasons not to do one, including the reason that we've never closed that street off before. But by the third ciclovia event, the people who were complaining about it the first time are at the ciclovia themselves.
To me, a ciclovia is a great way to bridge different user groups and to bring communities together. It brings out the community aspect of active transportation. And it's a good way of bringing awareness to people who may not have ever considered going to work by bike or by foot.
Graphic: Elise Stolte, Edmonton Journal
How do you as a group determine success for your projects, for example, for City for Life? With City for Life, what we really wanted to do was start the dialogue. We wanted to set the stage, to bring together Edmonton's leaders to talk about what we thought was an important issue. We thought it was really successful because everyone came and shared their expertise as it relates to active transportation. Also, because they provided really good insight into active transportation and its importance in Edmonton. We felt really enthusiastic and energized about that conversation, and we wanted it to be the tipping point and that all future conversations would move the design of Edmonton infrastructure toward making Edmonton a healthier, more active community.
For the minimum grid project, seeing support for building the minimum grid by the spring of 2017, that's a huge success.
What are things that have stood in the way of achieving some of your objectives so far or have been the most difficult challenges to navigate? My suggestion for anyone who is hoping to start a project, or wanting to make change that they think is needed, would be to persevere and to find the right champions within the organizations that you think would help you navigate the processes. It was fantastic when Michael Phair joined our board because he brought a wealth of experience and knowledge on the workings of the City. In addition to that, I think we had to find champions within the organization, both in council and in the city administration, who could help us learn about the City's processes.
I have no experience in that area, and it's been a huge learning curve for me to understand what role Paths for People can play as a group advocating for active transportation infrastructure. I was at a conference recently, and there was a talk that was really insightful. It was about the theory of change and how to identify the overall larger picture that you think your group or your organization is striving to change, what you'd like to see, and from there, identifying the small piece of that puzzle that you think the organization or you as an individual can play within that larger change. I think that's really important because Paths for People cannot put in bike lanes, but we need to be able to influence those who can. So we need to know what that looks like, in a positive, collaborative atmosphere.
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.