In April 2012, the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT), a project of Clean Air Partnership, released the Complete Streets Gap Analysis: Opportunities and Barriers in Ontario. The report included case studies on three Canadian municipalities that have made progress towards adopting Complete Streets: Thunder Bay, Waterloo, and Calgary. These case studies highlight that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving Complete Streets, rather a variety of different strategies may work depending on community context. This research was made possible with funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation.
The City of Thunder Bay is situated in Thunder Bay District on Lake Superior. Thunder Bay is the second largest community in Northern Ontario after Greater Sudbury. It is a major economic hub in Northern Ontario and according to the Growth Plan for Northern Ontario Thunder Bay is a Strategic Core Area (policy 4.4) meaning it must function as a “vibrant, walkable district” and support the development of “integrated public transportation systems” (GPNO, 2011).
Up until 2008, active transportation was not on the urban agenda in Thunder Bay. City streets were planned in a typical business-as-usual approach, prioritizing automobiles at the expense of other more sustainable modes of transportation. Recent changes, however, suggest that priorities are shifting, redefining what mid-sized, geographically-isolated Canadian cities can achieve with Complete Streets. Complete Streets have been identified in the City’s 2011-2014 Strategic Plan to help develop city-wide Urban Design Guidelines (UDG) over the next five years to provide developers with guidance on the built environment (City of Thunder Bay, 2011). When completed, the UDG will provide a tool to guide the implementation of Complete Streets.
Several key changes put Complete Streets on the agenda. The City of Thunder Bay hired new talent as a result of buy-in from upper level management and the Mayor to support active transportation initiatives. This fostered an understanding that a business-as-usual approach to street design will create little long-term social, environmental, and economic benefits for the community and makes it difficult to attract and retain young professionals. Furthermore, cross-sectoral partnerships broadened support for Complete Streets and allowed the City to reach new local audiences. Ongoing relationships with the Thunder Bay District Health Unit (TBDHU), EcoSuperior Environmental Programs as well as research initiatives with Lakehead University created a ‘cross pollination’ effect needed to support change.
Transportation planning milestones include; the development and approval of an Active Transportation Plan in 2008; the installation of 24 kilometres of active transportation routes across the City between 2010 and 2011; a cycling increase of 40% and a 23% increase in lawful riding on newly installed bike lanes from July 2009 to July 2010; the installation of bike racks on every City Transit bus in 2009; a 100 % low-floor accessible Transit Fleet in 2007 (the first medium-sized municipality to achieve this in Canada).
Thunder Bay faces many key challenges when working towards Complete Streets long-term. Specifically, weak policy and financial support from the Provincial and Federal Governments is making it difficult for the City to implement Complete Streets. For example, under current provincial law it is impossible to gain approval for a bike lane to cross a provincial road. This bureaucratic loophole impedes the development of continuous, complete, and comprehensive networks.
Furthermore, Thunder Bay is finding it difficult to leverage economic arguments to convince developers to design for Complete Streets (e.g., comprehensive sidewalks, bike lanes, transit infrastructure, the style and layout of new subdivisions, commercial, and institutional developments). More public, provincial, and federal backing is required so the City can make a strong economic case for Complete Streets in an urban environment that has few opportunities for major residential growth.
Keeping with recent changes, Thunder Bay aims to adopt more progressive Complete Streets-like language into the Official Plan during the 2012 review.
The Planning Division is also discussing creating a streamlined Complete Streets process for every road that is up for repaving or redesign based on the upcoming UDG (approximately 15 to 20 roads a year). This will help the City retrofit the existing network of streets, an especially important consideration in Thunder Bay where stagnant population growth provides few opportunities for new road development. In conjunction with this process, the City hopes to initiate a ‘best practice’ pilot project on a main corridor to build public support for the movement by showcasing the transformative powers of a Complete Streets approach.
The development of a series of new policy documents (e.g., Community Environmental Action Plan, Active Transportation Plan, the Transportation Demand Management Plan, the 2011-2014 Strategic Plan, the upcoming UDG and Streetscape Design Guidelines) set the framework to change streets from both a policy and implementation perspective.
Statistics Canada (2012). Thunder Bay, Ontario (Code 3558004) and Thunder Bay, Ontario (Code 3558) (table). Census Profile. 2011 Census. Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-316-XWE. Ottawa. Released May 29, 2012.
(accessed August 22, 2012).