March 15, 2024

An Engineering Perspective with Matt Pinder

While Jun Nogami may be the only other Toronto based bike blogger today, there is another blog that started in Toronto ten years ago called “Beyond the Automobile”. The blog’s author – Matt Pinder – is a transportation engineer in Ottawa who has been exposed to cycling in the Netherlands, started the BIKE MINDS storytelling series in Toronto and Ottawa, and has been calling for improvements to a suburban development in Ottawa called South Keys. I spoke with Matt on February 9, 2024 to reflect on his advocacy and professional journey over the past decade.

RZ: You started your blog ten years ago to find a job. How has your blog evolved since then?
MP: I've seen my blog focus much more into the nuts and bolts of design. Just looking back at my articles, when I was an advocate on the outside, I focused a lot on policy and ideas. But now that I've been doing engineering and design for a while, I understand a lot more about some of the specific nuances and can get into the details. I think about one post where I talked about how wide the corner radius needs to be and was able to use the software called AutoTURN to do a few different examples. Depending on how big of truck you're trying to design for, you can have a big radius or a small radius. Back when I was just doing advocacy, I would say that radius should be smaller, but didn't have the engineering means to discuss it. So, I've enjoyed being able to change things like that on the blog.

RZ: You biked in the Netherlands for three weeks in 2017. What subtleties did you pick up about Dutch cycling culture that may not be so obvious to someone who visited for only a few days?
MP: Good question. The first time I was there for a three-week course. We were given a lot of destinations to travel to and none of those were tourist destinations, so we really got off the beaten path, got into some of Amsterdam’s suburbs and some of the big parks that are close by, and you really learn quickly how close everything is there. Five kilometers from the centre of Amsterdam, you could be in a farm field looking at horses, but you can also very easily and comfortably cycle to all the nearby local villages. That was certainly something that stood out for me the first time.

A Dutch bike path next to a horse field (via Beyond The Automobile)

The second time I went for three weeks, I stayed in one of Amsterdam’s suburbs far from the tourist centre. I got to experience a bit of the daily rhythm of living there; going to the grocery store, buying stuff, and seeing that even this suburb was well designed. It had a market in an old town centre that they spent a lot of money on, and I experienced a 40-minute bike ride to Amsterdam that was on continuous comfortable pathways going through rural and industrial areas. It really put into perspective that cycling is just ubiquitous there. It's not just an Amsterdam thing. It's not just a big city thing. Wherever you are, you will have an easy time by bike and often easier than driving.

RZ: What inspired you to start the BIKE MINDS storytelling series in 2018 and are their plans to revive this in Ottawa, Toronto, or elsewhere?
MP: Like everything in my life, it seems that was inspired by traveling to the Netherlands too. When I was there the first time, we went to a similar storytelling event in Amsterdam featuring unique stories about people cycling. The atmosphere was amazing. Back at home (in Toronto at the time), I picked up on the fact that Toronto has quite an interesting and developed bike culture and there were all kinds of cool things happening with bikes. I was inspired, shared the idea with my friend Michelle, and together we're very fortunate to find a venue called Fix Coffee + Bikes in the west end. They were incredibly supportive of this event, Amsterdam Brewery was willing to throw in some beer, and it all came together positively. We found the number of stories that were there to share with was pretty overwhelming with almost 100 stories shared across all events. It's gone dormant right now sadly, but our organizing team has decided to keep the website going and I think we do have plans to revive it when we can find the time. I ran one in-person event in Ottawa just before the pandemic. That was a packed room of 120 people and so, I've been just as inspired knowing that Ottawa has lots of positive and inspiring bike stories to share too.

BIKE MINDS at the 2019 Ontario Bike Summit

RZ: Tell me about some of the differences you’ve found from an engineering perspective between cycling in Toronto and Ottawa.
MP: Ottawa is in most ways a lot more developed than Toronto in that since the 1970s, Ottawa has had this fantastic pathway network that has crossed the city which people used a lot for recreation. Tons of recreational cycling, but also for commuting to downtown government jobs. I'd say from the public side, the skew towards recreational cycling is very strong in Ottawa and it causes issues with trying to reconfigure urban streets through road diets for cycling. People love new pathways. They're completely uncontroversial. They just spent $26 million here to convert an old rail bridge to a beautiful multi-use pathway and it was widely celebrated, but it is still so contentious to reconfigure existing streets to reduce lanes and add cycling facilities.

Even the ones that are just such obvious low hanging fruit have not progressed as much and I compare that to Toronto which does have a decent network of trails, but most of the cycling that happens in Toronto is not in the suburbs or on those trails. It is downtown and people are cycling to work downtown because they want to beat transit, it’s cheaper than driving, and it happens in huge numbers. Because of that, Toronto has been more successful in recent years in doing those necessary street conversions and road diets. Bloor Street keeps getting expanded further east and west, and Richmond and Adelaide are pretty safe and solid now. That’s the difference at a high level. I've been really impressed that Ottawa cycling seems to be widely and warmly embraced by everyone wherever you are, but then as soon as you talk about changing a street, a lot of red flags go up.

RZ: Did you notice any differences regarding the public consultation process between the two cities?
MP: I admire the Toronto Cycling team and how proactive they are on the communications and public relations side of things. Their Twitter account is regularly updated with projects. There's thorough information about public projects online. I think honestly, Toronto is something to strive for a lot of municipalities who are engaging on this side of things. I've always been able to feel I have a pretty good pulse on what's happening there just from being subscribed to notifications on Twitter which says a lot about how they're trying to communicate.

RZ: Walk me through the design process of Toronto’s first protected intersection by York University which you were involved with.
MP: That was my first project as an EIT (engineer in training). I wasn't an engineer yet but was keen to design complete streets and was working for Alta Planning and Design at the time which won this bid. The design process was a learning experience because I hadn't designed anything before, so I had to learn what design guides should I read and how do I apply them. I started with hand sketching, got some coaching and feedback from another senior planner at the firm, and learned the other key part about the design process is managing stakeholders and comments. This project has not only a protected intersection, but the city wanted accessibility upgrades, green street improvements, accommodation of TTC vehicles, and a road safety review. There was a lot of different specialists involved, so I learned about the importance of understanding different stakeholders’ needs and concerns, as well as developing relationships with them. There were some TTC staff who I got to know well through that project, and I learned a lot from them about how they do transit signal priority which is still with me today.

Toronto's first protected intersection by York University which Matt helped design

The culture change side was big too. Just because there's money and public support for a project doesn't mean that staff are necessarily all aligned, or every one of your experts is gung-ho about doing things differently on that project. The electrical engineer on our side was someone I had to work hard to convince that this was a path worth pursuing. They hadn't done one of these before and were a bit reluctant, but we made it. We got to that point, but there's a lot of persistence that's needed, especially as a young professional. I needed to be able to prove myself and it was wonderful to see all that come together now. I left the firm before construction started, so my predecessor and the people still there were responsible for getting it through construction. That was a whole other thing, but I was so happy to be able to go and see my designs come to life a couple of years ago, which has been widely celebrated since and won a national award last year.

RZ: What was involved with preparing protected intersection guidelines for Ottawa and Ontario?
MP: I was a key author on the Ottawa guidelines, and then I was the lead author on the Ontario one that came out last year. Protected intersections are interesting emerging trends that a lot of municipalities are picking up. It basically solves the problem of how you make cycling through an intersection comfortable without just throwing pedestrians and cyclists together and having cyclists walk their bike through a crosswalk which was what a lot of municipalities have done in the first half of the 2000’s. You just build a multi use path in the boulevard which ended at the intersection and there's your active transportation facility. With universal accessibility becoming more prominent, lawsuits happening between cities and people being discriminated against, and a record number of vulnerable road users being killed, there's increased tension at intersections to do them right from an accessibility, safety, and comfort perspective. The Dutch got it right with those and we're finally starting to realize that including some culture change happening on the technical side in Ontario. If you look at the City of Ottawa, they've fully embraced this design approach and most engineers here know what they are and how to design them. I think that's indicative of where the province eventually is going to for all municipalities.

RZ: You have been involved with the South Keys development in Ottawa. Tell me more about this project and what other suburban projects in North America can learn from it.
MP: Until the last few years, I lived most of my adult life in urban areas. I've been fortunate that everywhere I lived had been very walkable and safe to be a pedestrian, but then life changed, and housing affordability led us to move to one of Ottawa’s inner suburbs. We're across the street from a train station, but this whole area was built up in the 70’s which is at the peak of designing everything for cars and includes a big box mall. As a transportation planner, this is exactly the thing that needs to change. I can bring off policies about transit-oriented development and why it's so important. I got here and realized nothing was happening on that, so my advocacy brain kicked in as well. I'm a community member who knows how to engage with the city and my neighbours, and I put out some ideas online and still have the Facebook group which were all well received. I got together with a group of interested residents from the surrounding communities, and we decided to form “Better South Keys Centre” with our goal being the community advocating for the enhancement of the centre into a complete livable community.

Parking lot at South Keys Centre (via Beyond The Automobile)

That kicked off a learning run for me too. I had no experience with land use planning and how development happens before that. I've read Strong Towns’ blog and buy into that mindset, but the actual process of how a developer proposes something, how the City approves it, and the funding mechanisms were all foreign to me. We've done some interesting community activities like walking the whole big box mall from north to south and talking about it with groups of up to 50 people. There's a new public space we’ve been engaging on and will be built there – hopefully in the next couple of years – and our first big win as a group was getting the City to fund a new “missing link” bike route into and through the centre which will be built this year. I've been happy with how everything I learned from cycling advocacy; I've been able to apply to a bigger context.

Being able to organize as a group is effective, but so is making yourselves distinct from community associations. It's natural for community associations to claim the turf of residential neighborhoods, but when you're talking about a redevelopment, you're trying to advocate for the needs of future residents which community associations are not necessarily good at. Even so, they have been strong allies of a lot of our initiatives, and we've been able to be clearly distinct from them too, which helps when we're working with city staff and talking to other community members.

RZ: Given your 2022 LinkedIn post about being a “professional advocate”, how do professional advocates differ from other road safety advocates?
MP: The key distinction of being a professional advocate is that presumably, you have some kind of professional reputation that you're trying to maintain and potentially even grow with your advocacy. You have to be careful and sensitive about how you do advocacy, but you can still do it effectively. One of the personas that people take on with advocacy is being very angry, critical, upset, and criticizing plans. While I agree this is a necessary part of the process, a professional advocate has to be careful about that. I'm an engineer and do work for the City of Ottawa, so me going online and being critical of the City of Ottawa is not going to be great for me, my firm, or my likelihood of continued employment. There are ways to advocate effectively. I can speak about the positives of things, I can celebrate the good, I can ask questions, I can raise ideas, but criticizing for the sake of criticizing is something I've stepped away from. There are times I feel frustrated about things, but whether I choose to voice those or not is my choice and I find ways to voice them in my private spheres.

RZ: What final message would you give to cyclists in Toronto or Ottawa regarding transportation engineering or advocacy in general?
MP: Just that advocacy is such an important part of processes. I've been in the room in a municipal meeting where advocacy is brought up and it is clear in my experience that people advocating for things result in change to the processes. It might not always be the change you're looking for, but it's always change in the right direction. So, my message is to keep getting involved, keep working hard, keep your hopes up because you're not always going to get everything that you want, but progress is still measurable and it's all because of people committing their time and energy to it.

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