August 29, 2023

Researching Active Transportation with Nancy Smith Lea

For almost 30 years, Nancy Smith Lea has been a pioneering road safety advocate focused on academic research and has covered topics such as economic impact studies, complete streets, and suburban bike hubs. Before becoming Director of The Centre for Active Transportation (TCAT) in 2008, she helped found Advocacy for Respect for Cyclists (ARC) and worked on one of Toronto’s now-defunct City Cycling Committee’s sub-committees. I spoke with Nancy about this experience on August 22, 2023.

RZ: Before starting TCAT, what was your involvement with Toronto’s cycling community?
NSL: I started biking when I moved to Toronto in 1989. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was a kid, but there was a bike left in the garage at the place we were renting and my landlords said I could use it. So I started using it and was hooked. But then, I was hit by a car at Harbord & St. George in 1993 and what transpired afterward launched me into advocacy. There was the whole court process and how the police handled the incident which opened my eyes to the vulnerabilities of being a cyclist and how cycling wasn’t being taken seriously as a mode of transportation.

Nancy riding on College Street when the bike lanes opened in 1993

A few of us started ARC which was my main focus for a few years. Before that, I was doing work with one of the subcommittees of Toronto’s City Cycling Committee and with the Spirit of Spadina Coalition to advocate for bike lanes in the redesign of Spadina.

RZ: Could you tell me about how the former City Cycling Committee worked?
NSL: There were three staff positions in planning (which focused on bike infrastructure), education, and promotions. There were subcommittees with each staff member, so I was working with the planning subcommittee. The committee had different roles in terms of helping staff with some of their work, but also making policy recommendations for council.

The committee was appointed by council, so there were different members such as the police, the school board, and other slots to fill in. I never actually sat on the committee itself, but rather worked with the subcommittees. At the time, that was the main forum for cycling issues and many of the cyclists on the committee were vehicular cyclists, so there was a strong anti bike lane sentiment at the time. There was a lot of work to try to change minds within the committee and it eventually shifted quite a bit.

RZ: What could you tell me about ARC’s work when they first started?
NSL: It was pretty different at the time. The memorials are the only legacy piece that remains, but we also did a lot of joyful activism such as parking meter parties and other direct actions. There was an ultimate big game hunt where cyclists took photos of cars parked in the bike lane and whoever got the biggest vehicle got a prize. We hosted a “cyclist strike” where cyclists walked their bikes in the street because there wasn’t a safe place to ride.

A parking meter party hosted by ARC on Spadina in 1997

There was a lot of playfulness including during public deputations. At the time, cycling wasn’t included in any of the plans, so we would focus on some really egregious aspect of the plans and sometimes it was something simple such as the cyclists dismount signs at construction sites, some of which are unfortunately still around. We did a whole series of graphics that looked exactly the same as the official renderings, but with the car and telling people to get out and push, and circulated them with our deputation. ARC also did some legal work because the group was started not only when two cyclists were killed, but also when some cyclists were arrested at Critical Mass in which we rallied support for them including fundraising for those who were arrested or got big tickets.

NOTE: You can read more about ARC in this 2016 interview with Geoffrey Bercarich.

RZ: How has Toronto’s cycling culture evolved since you started getting involved?
NSL: At the time, there was a real outsider feeling to cycling and there wasn’t the same kind of sense there was any movement inside City Hall. There was just a handful of staff who were working on these issues and a couple of advocates on council like Jack Layton and Olivia Chow. Since there weren’t many advocates on staff, we felt we needed to make noise in order to get the attention that was needed.

The cycling committee was very formal and not super effective. The space we created through ARC harnessed some of the really cool emerging culture happening around cycling at the time. There were a lot of bike couriers back then, Critical Mass, and a lot of zines being written. There was an energy we were tapping into, but we were also helping to support it. The community was much smaller then. If you saw someone riding on the street, you probably knew who they were. Now, it’s become more normalized and there isn’t the same kind of club feeling which is a good thing. I still think developing culture is super important in places that don’t have it already, which is why TCAT works on incubating suburban cycling.

RZ: What was the inspiration behind the economic impact studies such as those done on Bloor Street & how did they inspire advocates elsewhere?
NSL: ARC was involved with the Coroner’s first inquest in 1998 which made me realize there wasn’t a lot of credible information and research being developed around cycling, so I went to back to school and did my masters thesis on urban cycling safety. After my graduate work, a few of us got together and started TCAT to focus on developing a credible evidence base. We looked for opportunities to do that and found in a lot of public deputations happening around bike lanes, many business owners nixed them because they talked about the negative impacts bike lanes would have. We asked “Is it really true?” Nobody knew or had done the work. We understood that small businesses were stressed, but did they really know what those stressors were?

Michael Canzi – a staff person at Clean Air Partnership – wrote the original grant proposal and conceived the idea, while TCAT carried out the research studies. That research was important because it addressed a big misconception that had been floating around and influencing policy for a long time. Everybody was surprised – including us – when we got the results and realized how few people were driving to downtown businesses. It hit a chord with other cities because it’s a similar issue that’s happening everywhere. It’s happening less now, but it’s still one of the big struggles of addressing the potential of negative impact of small businesses when putting bike infrastructure in.

RZ: When did you see the conversation shift away from bike lanes to complete streets that are safe for everyone?
NSL: It was always TCAT‘s mandate to be focused on both walking and cycling, which was one of the reasons why we were really interested in the concept of complete streets. We also saw how it had the power to build a big coalition. We were inspired by the National Complete Streets Coalition in the U.S. and how that was tapping into seniors, health, parents, and a whole slew of people who were not just cyclists. For me, I saw that as being potentially powerful because at the end of the day, cyclists are still a very small minority and you have to work to build coalitions to get safer streets.

One other thing I thought was good about complete streets is it’s practical for municipalities. It allows them to move forward in a car dominant environment. We have – for many years – been building streets for cars and now when we build or reconstruct streets, we can look at how to do it differently so it works for everyone. It’s something municipalities can embrace more easily than just going for a bike lane network which is obviously still critical, but it’s just one aspect of complete streets.

RZ: TCAT has started suburban bike hubs in Scarborough, Markham, Newmarket, and Mississauga. How did you find the effectiveness of these hubs?
NSL: Incubating cycling in suburban environments is probably one of the most effective things we’ve done at TCAT because there is this tendency to write off the suburbs and see them in a monolithic way. Just like the downtown core, there are pockets that are more conducive to cycling, where there’s potential for increasing cycling. Just paying attention is the first thing that we did since at the time, nobody was really paying attention given the common perception that it’s impossible to provide good transportation options for people in the suburbs.

Nancy speaking at a "Biking Beyond Downtown" event in 2019

Similar to the work we’ve done with other municipalities, we realize there’s a critical need for work in the suburban environment. When we started working in Scarborough, people would come in and say “Oh, thank God!”, “Where have you guys been?”, and “We have needed something like this!” At the time we started Scarborough Cycles, there were only two bike shops in all of Scarborough. It’s partly about getting a place for people to fix their bikes, but also about culture, developing advocacy, and developing demand for cycling infrastructure. We were replicating some of what has happened downtown in a more organic way, but making a concerted effort to replicate that in areas that don’t seem as conducive to cycling.

RZ: What else do you think is needed to build cycling culture in Scarborough & other suburbs?
NSL: I think the community bike hub model is strong and works really well. The suburbs are huge and cycling is localized. There are a few bike hubs now which is great, but we definitely need more and to be in more neighbourhoods. The programming of community bike hubs is really important as well. It’s helping people with practical things like route planning and doing group rides, which helps with building solidarity.

RZ: What is Mobilizing Justice and your role with the initiative?
NSL: Mobilizing Justice (MJ) is a multi-year federally funded research initiative which brings together academics, municipalities, private sector, and community groups to look at how our transportation system impacts those who live in transportation poverty. There are six working groups that are led by both an academic and a community partner. I’m the community lead for the “Transportation Modes” working group and work with Meghan Winters from SFU who’s the academic lead.

One thing our working group is looking at is the role of community initiatives across the country. We ask what is sparking these initiatives and what that means in terms of gaps in the transportation landscape. We created a catalogue of all of the community initiatives addressing transport poverty in Canada to understand what role they are playing and we bring advocates together through a community of practice so they can learn from each other, learn tactics, and help advance their overall effectiveness. We also look at it from a bird’s eye view to identify the big gaps happening across the country. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest transportation gaps is cycling which is why that’s the mode where we see the most community action. In pretty much every city, there’s a lot of latent demand and people who care about this issue. Things are getting better but it’s still not quite where it needs to be in terms of transportation planning.

RZ: Does Mobilizing Justice have an immediate focus over the next few months?
NSL: MJ’s annual symposium is coming up on October 4th and 12th, which is a good way to learn about what the initiative has been doing. One thing new this year is the release of Canada’s first national survey on transportation equity and transport poverty. This survey is different than traditional transportation surveys because it doesn’t just look at which trips people are taking, but which trips they aren’t taking but would like to, and what the barriers and challenges are for people in getting where they need to go.

Another important piece that one of the other working groups is doing is producing a guide to help governments integrate equity into transportation planning. Many municipalities want to have an equity lens, but what does it mean to have it? What’s involved in creating an equity lens? What is the change you want to see as a result of this?

RZ: What piece of advice would you give to someone who's looking to get involved?
NSL: I think it depends on what you want to get out of it and there’s a lot of room for different tactics. From my experience, I suggest focusing on your strengths and what strengths you can bring to the movement. For me, it involved research. For community advocates, I’d say try to stay focused on what you know about – your community knowledge – without getting too locked into specific solutions. Stay open to learning from a diversity of voices about what’s needed and what can work. Also, I think it’s important to take the long view and make sure you take the time to celebrate wins big and small.

A 1996 photo of Nancy during one of ARC's "Days of Action"

I also think it’s important to – as much as possible – build a large movement (or coalition) and try to avoid the fractious stuff that can happen because at the end of the day we are still a small group of people that are trying to create change. The more we can build on each other’s work, the more we can accomplish.


  1. Great article. It brought back so many memories of the direct action protests that were done (they were SO fun). And I learned some new things too. More like this please!

  2. Sue Zielinski08/09/2023, 21:32

    Nice article!