Raktim Mitra is an Associate Professor within the Ryerson University School of Urban and Regional Planning, and co-director of TransForm Lab, a hub for policy-relevant transportation research. Through his work, Raktim adds valuable insight into the factors at play in people choosing to walk or bike. We chatted with Raktim in advance of his participation in our panel discussion on road safety, Toronto’s Streets at a Crossroads.
How are you focused on road safety in your research?
As a planner and academic I study walking and cycling in cities, and explore ways to enable more people to walk and bike. I’m focused on the road safety issue because the importance of safety for vulnerable road users can never be underemphasized. It’s a key reason why many people don’t walk or bike–whether we’re talking about actual safety or perceived safety.
For example, when we ask parents, “why do you not walk your kids to school?,” the most common answers are that a) it’s too far and/or b) it’s too dangerous. Now, factually speaking, average distances to schools have not changed much in the past 50 years. Nor has the safety of our streets. But perception has changed. Access to news and information technology has had some impact on this; bad news in the media affects the choice of transportation options. But the household decisions on transportation involves many other factors, and in my research I’m trying to understand the reasons people feel unsafe, so that we can help to make change, as planners.
You’re currently working on a project to analyze the outcomes of TO’s cycling infrastructure. How did this come about, and what is the goal?
We (myself and my co-applicant from University of Toronto) are examining the impacts of new bicycle infrastructure, primarily to understand what role it has in increasing cycling rates, but also to understand the impacts of infrastructure on perceptions of safety and on neighbourhood liveability. We feel that good data on quantifiable impacts of bicycle infrastructure can go a long way in advancing active transportation planning in this region. We will explore about 12 case study projects across many contexts and types of infrastructure in the Greater Golden Horseshoe region between now and 2021.
Our analysis will provide an understanding, on a context-specific basis, of the direct impact of specific bike facilities on perception, as well as change in travel behaviour.
You just published a new study, looking at the closure of streets to enable safe play zones for children. What did you discover?
Play streets have become quite popular in Europe and in the US. Earth Day Canada piloted the “Street Play” project in a Toronto neighbourhood last year. In this new study, I provided the systematic evaluation of the program. The results were very positive. The kids who came to the events made new friends, and many reported they would not have been physically active otherwise. Closing down streets is always…somewhat contentious. But in this study, we found that most residents were generally positive and appreciated the neighbourhood-level benefits, after people had become familiar with the project, which is encouraging. From a programming perspective, that’s the main takeaway.
How is your research leading to new collaborations and engagements that might further public policy outcomes?
In our lab, and broadly speaking, with the research that we do at Ryerson, we pride ourselves in producing knowledge that is practice-ready. And as a result, we have created–and continued to create–collaboration with public, private and community organizations, producing works that are relevant to advancing policy and programming. Some of this work has been translated into practice, or informed policy, which is immensely gratifying.