This guest post is by members of Transportation Equity Toronto, the organizers of the Mini Conference on Racial Equity and Active Transportation (bios at the end).
Over 50% of Toronto’s population is racialized (and even more so in suburban areas), yet plans for improving the convenience and safety of active transportation (AT) — meaning human-powered transportation such as walking or cycling — have consistently been concentrated in the downtown core, an area from where racialized residents are being displaced in the face of massive gentrification. While racialized members of Toronto’s inner suburban neighborhoods and beyond are working to improve conditions for AT, their initiatives are often overlooked, while their agency and successes continue to get undercut and undercompensated.
The perception of the car-loving, sparsely populated suburban neighbourhoods is a common justification for the inequitable application of sound planning practice and design for AT. Yet the reality is that the design of Toronto’s suburbs forces residents to depend on single-occupant vehicles rather than AT and public transit. As a result, suburban communities are more vulnerable to the impacts of pollution, climate risk, traffic-related deaths, and diseases related to commuter stress and inactive lifestyles. Further, this perception puts the onus on suburban residents rather than the systemic barriers preventing racialized suburban residents from accessing affordable modes of transportation.
As racialized Toronto residents who live or study in the suburbs, this is our reality. Our frustration with the lack of consideration of the agency and needs of racialized suburban residents in active transportation discussions has brought us together to create space for more intersectional conversations. Our lived experiences, struggles with getting around, and our passion for collaborating with communities in local level initiatives have motivated us to come together to take matters into our own hands. And so we came together as Transportation Equity Toronto—a volunteer initiative dedicated to bringing intersectionality to active transportation conversations in Toronto.
On April 27, Transportation Equity Toronto and Scarborough Cycles held the Mini Conference on Racial Equity and Active Transportation in Toronto’s Suburbs. The event, which took place at Access Point on Danforth in Scarborough, is one of few transportation events that created space for racialized suburban residents to share their concerns and successes.
The event began with presentations on two racialized parts of Toronto: Scarborough, and Jane and Finch.
First, Shannon Holness from the Toronto Community Benefits Network spoke about the limitations of planning and design in reflecting residents’ experiences, and challenged the audience to think beyond the infrastructure. She noted that planning and design processes use a deficit lens and impose design standards in attempting to close these gaps without valuing the knowledge, experiences, and other assets of the community.
Lesser known about the Jane and Finch community is that a lot of residents bike in the neighbourhood green spaces available to them. Using the Finch LRT as an example, Shannon pointed out that a deficit lens can lead to solutions that are more appropriate for attracting a new and different target market rather using the existing assets, knowledge, and agency of existing residents to meet the needs of existing communities. Transportation routes connect peoples’ lives: the overlapping concerns between transportation, housing, and public realm must be informed by the user experience.
Aparita Bhandari discussed the narratives and challenges surrounding transportation in Scarborough, focusing on conversations that emerged during the Discourse’s Scarborough Transit Storytelling Circle. The Story Circle allowed Scarborough residents to challenge misconceptions of Scarborough in mainstream media and co-create new narratives. Aparita stressed that user experiences and solutions supported by residents are continually overlooked, in favour of proposals by planning professionals who are disconnected from the suburban landscape. Most importantly she highlighted the potential that presents itself when listening to residents, mobilizing communities, and continuing to do so as an ongoing process.
The next set of presentations showcased three racialized citybuilders working to better enable active transportation in suburban communities.
Marvin Macaraig from Scarborough Cycles provided insight on the feasibility and benefits of enabling biking in Scarborough. He pointed out the high number of pedestrian deaths in Scarborough, indicating that those numbers would be treated as a health crisis if they were any other disease. Scarborough Cycles created youth bike hubs and implemented a bike host mentorship program to increase residents’ confidence in getting around by bike. These programs fostered social cohesion by bringing together a variety of residents, including newcomers and youth.
Nicole Hanson from Hanson Planning and Development spoke about how she was able to inspire more people to bike by taking ownership of her own cycling narrative. She shared about how she brought herself to better health by biking and also got to know her neighbourhood more. Through her participation in group rides in Mississauga, Nicole shifted the language on biking by armouring her bike with flowers and wearing West African print clothing, taking up space that challenges the stoic image that comes to mind when thinking about people who ride bikes. Despite the constrained space available in the overlooked area of active transportation, Nicole helped more residents receive the benefits of active transportation by increasing visibility and representation of black women in biking.
Darnel Harris from Our Greenway provided insight on engaging communities by emphasizing the importance of identifying what matters to the community without imposing anything. He noted that people are more receptive when topics are framed using words they can identify with as well as concepts that directly and immediately affect them.
In addition to the speakers representing racialized suburban communities in Scarborough and Jane and Finch, there were also attendees from Etobicoke Lakeshore, Vaughan, Brampton, and Hamilton. This reflects a desire to connect people from Toronto’s suburbs to the rest of the GTHA and share about their own experiences and concerns, with priority given to racialized suburban participants. Participants brought up the lack of infrastructure for active transportation in the suburbs and the need to integrate active transportation networks with transit. Additionally, participants brought up the need for the need for better representation of racialized communities in municipal planning staff and education as well as the need to apply expertise and understandings of the land different from colonial standards.
Suburban racialized communities were designed and developed using imposed standards that do not reflect residents’ experiences or respond to their needs. Addressing disparities in access to active transportation involves allowing space for the leadership of racialized suburban residents and valuing their contributions, knowledge, and assets. These disparities will not addressed by having “white saviours” speak over us and overlook our agency.
We organized this event to open space for racialized community members to take ownership of their narratives and to have their contributions and knowledge inform the transportation planning processes.
This work is continuous. Let’s keep these conversations going: Tell your networks about work being done by Black, Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC) citybuilders in active transportation. Allow space for racialized citybuilders, especially for those who are already doing the work, to contribute to the decision making processes and to have their work recognized. As Nicole Hanson puts it, “Render the invisible visible for others to hold space and share their stories”.
Armi de Francia is an active transportation professional, suburban resident, and core team member of Transportation Equity Toronto.
Sabat Ismail is a student, year-round cyclist, core team member of Transportation Equity Toronto and advocate for community bike spaces, particularly those that make cycling further accessible to those are marginalized.
Candice Leung is a Project Coordinator with 8 80 Cities, resident of Scarborough and member of Transportation Equity Toronto.
Brian Cheung is a resident of Scarborough and a core team member of Transportation Equity Toronto.
Husna Raghe is a student, cycling equity advocate and member of Transportation Equity Toronto.