What We Can Learn from the City That Lost A Million Pounds

Canada, Commentary, Local Government, Steve Lafleur (historic), Transportation, Uncategorized

There are two types of people in Canadian cities: people who hate cars, and people who hate cyclists. Or so the perception goes. While it is true that many cities have seen bitter electoral feuds over bike lanes and urban sprawl, they are driven more by perception than reality. Drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists can co-exist, and making life easier for the latter two groups doesn’t have to come at the expense of the former. Canadian cities have much to learn from an unlikely place: Oklahoma City – also known as the City That Lost a Million Pounds.

Many drivers think of cycling as a hobby for under-employed hipsters. Cyclists often think of drivers as people who are too lazy to get out of their cars. Pedestrians are often ignored. Despite these rigid identities, humans are multi-modal creatures. Everyone is a pedestrian sometimes, and most people also drive, cycle, or use public transportation.

While drivers often think of non-drivers as an opposing group, they are generally people at different stages of their days or lives. Urban cyclists often go on to become suburban drivers. Suburban drivers often go on to be urban transit users. These identities are fluid, shaped by urban design, personal circumstances, and preferences – which often evolve.

Oklahoma City shows how these preferences can be tweaked. It would be tough to come up with a more stereotypical car city than OKC. Most of the City’s growth occurred after the age of mass automobile ownership, so they haven’t got the type of large, dense urban core that most large cities have. As the City boomed, built entirely around auto commuting, they skimped on active transportation infrastructure such as sidewalks. That choice came back to haunt the City.

When Mick Cornett became Mayor of Oklahoma City in 2004, the City was accustomed to appearing on the type of lists that cities want to be on. The City was one of the most affordable and most prosperous. But then the City appeared on a less flattering list: America’s fattest cities.

Being a heavy set man himself, Cornett decided to use his own personal struggle to help mobilize his community into healthier lifestyle choices. On New Year’s Eve 2007, Cornett challenged the City’s residents to lose a collective one million pounds – which they did by 2012, with some help from the 42 pounds shed by the mayor. That year, Oklahoma City was named the 23rd American by Men’s Fitness magazine.

Part of the success was no doubt driven by the inspiration of Cornett’s personal story. The Mayor was making the rounds of national talk shows, extolling the virtues of healthy living. But part was due to the fact that the City raised $777 million to create infrastructure to give people alternatives to driving to each and every destination.

Some of the expenditures were of questionable value. The City is currently building a $129 million streetcar line, despite the growing consensus that streetcars do little to improve urban mobility. They also allocated $252 million to a convention center, which is tertiary at best to fostering walkability.

Some of the expenditures were more obviously beneficial. The City is building a 70 acre park downtown to give residents some valuable green space in the urban core. More importantly, the City added 400 miles of new sidewalks. While that doesn’t mean that people have necessarily started commuting from the suburbs by foot, it does make it easier to walk rather than drive to the convenience store, or to just leisurely stroll around the block without fear of being hit by a car. The City also added 100 miles of jogging and biking trails, and has invested in fitness facilities ranging from kayaking to school gyms.

Perhaps the most important lesson from Oklahoma City is that providing more active transportation options does not require a “war on cars.” The initiative was spearheaded by a suburban Republican mayor, and heavily supported by the business community. It wasn’t framed as us versus them.

As we’ve seen in Toronto, for example, an adversarial relationship between drivers and cyclists can eliminate the desire for mutual accommodation. Allowing the discussion over bike lanes and improved pedestrian infrastructure to be dominated by emotion can cloud decision making.

The question shouldn’t be whether, but how to build bike lanes and improve walkability. Recognizing that drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians aren’t opposing factions is an important starting point. We all need to share the streets, whether on two wheels or four.