Vancouver, Canada

The International Women’s Forum (Vancouver, Canada, October 16-18) examined the leading trends influencing our lives, communities, and future. Vancouver is so well known for its exemplary urban planning that the term “Vancouverism” is often used by city planners. Photo by Ben Welle.

Three weeks ago I had the pleasure of representing EMBARQ at the International Women’s Forum (IWF) in Vancouver, Canada. The event focused on modern movements shaping the world, including trends influencing our lives, communities, and future. Since urban transport is an integral component of life in our cities, I presented on the links between transport, health, and quality of life.

In order to make our cities healthier and happier places to live, we need to focus on the key linkage between public health and urban mobility, and the ability of sustainable transport and community design to improve road safety.

Public health is intimately tied to urban mobility

The way we get around in cities has a lot to do with our health. 1.3 million people die every year from traffic fatalities, and nearly half of these deaths occur in urban areas. Over 3 million people die globally from diseases related to physical inactivity, and about 1.2 million die every year in cities from exposure to outdoor air pollution. Many of these deaths occur in low and middle-income countries. At EMBARQ, the sustainable urban transport and planning program of the World Resources Institute (WRI), we work to improve the quality of life for urban residents in developing countries by catalyzing and helping implement environmentally, socially and financially sustainable urban mobility and urban planning solutions.

Sustainable transport and community design helps improve road safety

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over a third of traffic deaths in low- and middle-income countries are among pedestrians and cyclists, or so called “vulnerable users” who suffer because roads are not designed to protect or prioritize them over motor vehicles. If we can improve safety for this group through how we design our cities, we can make a real dent in the traffic fatality problem and help reduce the 1.3 million annual deaths from traffic accidents. We can also provide safe, high quality mass transit, which has been proven to be the safest way to get around in cities. EMBARQ’s research in Guadalajara, Mexico, found that a carefully designed Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system, a fast surface transport mode using buses, can carry three times more people per lane than mixed traffic, while experiencing over 60 times fewer crashes. The same is true of Metro and Light Rail systems, the two other most common sustainable transport systems.

By making it safer and more pleasant to bicycle, walk, and take public transit we can improve the safety and accessibility of cities for all users of the road. Additionally, we can encourage more active forms of transport that bring immense health benefits through increased physical activity. This isn’t to say that everyone should be riding a bicycle five miles to work in spandex each morning, but rather that urban spaces should be designed to prioritize and foster walking to stores or public transport, or perhaps using a bicycle to access transit or visit the grocery store. And what if parents could feel safe enough to drop their kids off at school on a bicycle? That’s the reality in places with safe bicycling infrastructure, such as Copenhagen, where 25 % of all families with two kids have a cargo bike they use to transport kids to kindergarten, for grocery shopping, and for other household tasks.

Vancouverism has led to better health, environment

One of the questions asked at the Forum was what the short and long-term strategy of cities should be. Cities need to cultivate a long term vision to create safe, walkable communities with quality mass transit while in the short-term creating pilot projects and interventions that can be scaled up over time. We’ve seen this with the introduction of advanced bus systems in cities around the world, bicycle sharing, and other forms of sustainable transport that could be hitting a tipping point. But Vancouver, the host city of the Forum, provides a great example of exemplary planning and action – in fact the word “Vancouverism” is even used to refer to an approach to city planning that prioritizes compact, mixed-use neighborhoods where people can get around easily through walking and mass transit.

Unlike most other North American cities, Vancouver nixed a plan for freeways in the central city and went instead for mass transit and a consistent effort to develop its core. In the last few years, it has added a network of segregated cycle tracks and traffic calming to make cycling and walking safer and more pleasurable. According to international expert on non-motorized transport and Rutgers Professor John Pucher, among North American cities, Vancouver has the highest percentage of people who bike to work of any city in North America, the highest percentage of people who walk to work, the best safety rating for walking, and the best safety rating for cycling. Furthermore, the city ranks first in North America for the least CO2 emissions and best air quality. Other cities across the world could do well to channel some of Vancouver’s urban planning to make their cities healthier and happier places to live.