Seen and Heard: Beth Savan on Urban Cyclists

Lindsay Handren

A popular fixture in the University of Toronto’s School of the Environment, Research Director and Senior Lecturer Beth Savan was warmly introduced by staff and former students alike this past Thursday at her seminar on urban cycling. Prior to presenting, Savan was recognized by Delta Management Group as one of Canada’s 2014 Clean50 and as a Clean16 award recipient in the education category for making significant contributions to sustainable development and inspiring others to do the same.

Entitled ‘Creating More Urban Cyclists: Accelerating the Adoption of Cycling for Transportation in Toronto,’ Savan’s talk was part of the School’s ongoing seminar series on the environment.

Over the past five years, the number of urban cyclists in Toronto has roughly doubled despite almost no  corresponding infrastructure or policy initiatives. Confessing to a great personal interest in the area for many years, Savan brought together a team of over 20 individuals from within the Environment and Urban Planning programs to develop a toolkit to better understand and contribute to an increase in cyclists using behavioural queues.

The project looked at four key characteristics of cyclists to better understand behavioural differences between wards in the GTA:  inclusivity of demographics, trip length and frequency, land use and urban form, and topography.

“To implement behavioural change programs and accelerate this apparent cultural shift, making it more widespread and rapid, we needed to identify what areas are going to be the most ‘right’ for targeting,” noted Savan.

This backdrop helped to identify neighbourhoods with the most demand for cycling, and was used to develop the team’s toolkit last year–an evidence-based combination of behavioural change models and practical cycling initiatives and promotional programs. The toolkit in itself is fundamentally tuneable with options at each step, making it adaptable to specific circumstances. Broadly speaking, it entails the segmentation of target groups, identification of barriers to cycling, and implementation of commitment strategies.

Early results from two recently-concluded pilot studies employing the team’s toolkit have indicated a heightened willingness of participants to spend time on a bike, a reduction in barriers to cycling, and an overall significant increase in cycling.

In an interesting twist, Savan went on to note that the toolkit has been increasingly adapted to business settings to increase market shares. Secondary research completed by Urban Planning student Daniel Arancibia detailed evidence associating increased cycling volumes with fewer commercial vacancies in cities that have implemented strong cycling policies. In Toronto, cyclists are currently responsible for the second-largest monthly per-capita spending within a studied neighbourhood (after pedestrians).

In her conclusion, Savan emphasized the importance of the toolkit for the future of urban cycling in Toronto.

“Clearly in Toronto, cultural factors have been responsible for changes in the increase in cycling–not policy or infrastructure,” she noted. “I am confident that this behavioural initiative can significantly accelerate cycling adoption at a fraction of the cost of physical infrastructure.”

However, in a view shared by many within the downtown core, Savan expressed a continued desire for additional cycling lanes, and a hope that an analysis and distribution of the project’s final results will lead to decreased opposition for such an initiative. She may very well be on to something–while the ongoing planning process for Eglinton Street had not originally included bike lanes, participants are now considering a variety of options following a presentation by Savan and her team.

The team’s current research will be expanded to test its hypotheses in varied landscapes to further explore the relationships among behavioural changes and infrastructure. Savan hopes to eventually identify the optimal combination of infrastructure, policy, and behavioural change for acceleration the adoption of cycling for transportation in Toronto.

Lindsay Handren is a 2015 Master of Public Policy Candidate at the University of Toronto. She holds an BA (Honours) in Political Science and History from the University of Prince Edward Island. Her policy interests include health, education, immigration, and environmental policy.


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