Fit is a Feminist Issue – and an Infrastructure Issue

I have been involved in a lot of conversations about active transportation in the last few weeks. And about the reasons both kids and seniors may be less active than they would like. And Mount Alison University geograph Professor Leslie Kern talking about her book Feminist City (my copy is on order).

And far too many rants where cyclists were blamed for being struck by cars, articles were written about pedestrians hitting cars (the cars drove away – never the drivers – and the pedestrians were hospitalized). The worst was blaming an older man for daring to go for on walk on a bare sidewalk in regular shoes, after he broke his ankle when trying climb over a windrow left by a snowplow.

What if we designed our living spaces so that more of us that are enticed to walk, bike and take transit, because the more that they do, the better it is for everyone?

Women in Urbanism Canada points out that women make up more than half of Canada’s aging population, so building age-friendly cities must be gender-inclusive. Women are more likely to outlive their partners, live in poverty, earn less, own less property, and have children and grandchildren to care for. They are more likely to suffer from mobility-related disabilities and physical impairments. They may also outlive their ability to drive. They need affordable and well-connected public transportation, areas to exercise and socialize and homes that allow them to live, independently, and with easy access to services resources and community amenities.

And the city of Ottawa, in a zoning review paper currently under discussion notes that “the impacts of car-dependency are most acutely felt by women, youth, elderly people, low-income people, and people with disabilities, as these are all people who are less likely to have access to or afford personal vehicles. A mobility-rich neighbourhood is a 15-minute neighbourhood where kids can walk to school and recreation, where people have the option to run a quick errand on foot, and people of all incomes can affordably access their needs.”

So what would that activity-friendly neighbourhood look like? It would have public transit, wide sidewalks and bike spaces (maybe even car-free), with benches, bathrooms, trees for shade, meeting places and playgrounds, plus a variety of shops and services close to home.

Click on this link to see a short video of what I think is a practically perfect active living space.

A street with dense housing, trees, playground, bike racks, and people of all ages walking or cycling. The drawing comes from The cover of Curbing Traffic, a book on the human case for fewer cars by Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett.

For winter in Canada, I would add ploughed sidewalks and bike lanes. Sweden has already led the way on this. Following a gender analysis of its street clearing practices, Swedish cities began clearing sidewalks first, because they discovered that women were more likely to walk. There were three times as many injuries from falling on slippery streets as there were from driving, and the cost of treating those injuries far outweighed the city of snow clearing.

For millions of short journeys, the right tool for the job ought to be walking or cycling, but the way too many streets are designed makes this a difficult choice. Cars go too fast, there are no safe spaces for bicycles, and sidewalks have obstacles including high curbs, unsafe crosswalks, and buttons to beg for a pedestrian light that my not even be accessible to all users.

That’s a shame, because person on a bicycle can go three to four times faster than the pedestrian, but uses five times less energy in the process. Equipped with this tool, humans outstrip the efficiency of not only all machines but all other animals as well (Ivan Illich, Energy & Equity, 1973).

Brent Toderian, the former chief planner for the city of Vancouver, has written that “the recent Paris transformation of key streets to add bike infrastructure is intensely pragmatic – more mobility choice and more trips using a lot less space, lower public cost, lower emissions, less pollution, better public health, etc.”

The Tyee wrote last year about how various people with disabilities were using bike lanes and how the lanes could be even more accessible. I found it really eye-opening.

All this infrastructure is not just a feminist concern. It can also have a real impact on our health. Recently there was a meta-analysis of the impact of moderate physical activity on health. According to the report I read, about one in ten deaths could have been prevented with a little as eleven minutes of moderate physical activity a day. I’ll leave it to Catherine Womack to assess the claims; why I thought was important for this blog was the final quote:

´Dr Leandro Garcia, of Queen’s University Belfast, emphasised that moderate activity did not have to involve what people normally thought of as exercise, such as sports or running. “For example, try to walk or cycle to your work or study place instead of using a car, or engage in active play with your kids or grandkids,” he said.´

Imagine if we had safe and accessible places to do that…

Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She has been a commuter cyclist for over 20 years.

2 thoughts on “Fit is a Feminist Issue – and an Infrastructure Issue

  1. Thank you!!! The link between fitness and ifrastructure seem so obvious touse, yet so many communities put car infrastructure ahead of everything else. This is starting to change, although some cities (Paris and Monteal come to mind) are doing better than others.

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