7 min read.
Lanrick Bennett Jr. is the Managing Director of 880 Cities. Lanrick is an advocate for social programs and a year-round urban cyclist in Toronto who champions protected cycling infrastructure in multiple forms.
To start off, what is your personal relationship with cycling advocacy, especially in regards to young children and caregivers?
I have been really lucky that my cycling advocacy started with my kids. I have a 12 year old and a 9 year old. My daughter, Zoe, about 4 years ago, was determined to be an independent young lady and ride her bike to school. That summer, to get her used to our streets and the path to school we cycled together. It was a glorious few months and then a tragedy happened on the route to school, and my daughter really saw the ramifications of our local government not doing enough to make cycling safe for her, her friends, and me.
A father of two was killed going the opposite direction of our path to our school. We missed the crash by 20 minutes. It shook her up, and she went on a bike strike. Since that day, I’ve dedicated myself to make sure that we start from scratch to rethink the space that we have in order to create safe corridors for young people, for parents, for caregivers to go from their homes and schools.
Caregivers and young children have specific needs as street users and urban dwellers. From your perspective, what are some opportunities for greater wellbeing of young children and their caregivers that can be unlocked by safer and more comfortable cycling?
We need to have conversations with kids, with the little people that want to be able to utilise streets and sidewalks better. When I cycle to school or to the park with my son we have the time to converse and I can ask “how did you feel when we were riding?”. He will start off by saying “daddy it was great, we get to talk about Pokemon” but even at 9, he is able to conceptualise that on certain streets he felt scared or unsafe, or couldn’t see over a hump. You realise that as adults you aren’t getting down at their viewpoint, to figure out what those tangent and tactile pieces are that are making travel difficult for our kids.
There’s a slow down when you are not in a car. Opportunities that allow for the parent with the child to really have an in depth connection. You don’t see that when you have a lineup of cars, and the kids get out of the back seat. You get to really see the world around you. It’s a missed opportunity from our elected officials, from our planners, they should really be spending the time and talk to the 6 year old on the back of the bike, that might be feeling jostled by a pothole in the bike lane – what they are feeling, thinking about, how they can be disconnected from the safety they should be feeling.
The voices of young children, their parents and caregivers are traditionally underrepresented in traditional city building processes and overall civic engagement strategies. 880 Cities have developed a number of playful, imaginative, and approachable engagement activities that attract a wide range of stakeholders. Can you give some examples related to young children, families and caregivers?
I am still relatively new at 880 cities, but I was drawn to them because their message of “what if everything we did in our cities was great for an 8 and 80 year old” really resonates. There are extreme age demographics that aren’t represented enough in our urban processes. The way that 880 Cities try to engage with the public is to treat people like the experts they really are. If you live on a street that is looking to create physical changes to make it safer, we need to be talking with you. The thing that we have done right is that we don’t expect people to come down to a town hall in a basement of a public building on a Wednesday night. We want to literally come out to the places that need change, even if that means going to a park and having a discussion with people in their own place. It’s all about going to the people that matter the most, those who will be affected. We also try to proactively think further ahead in terms of who will be represented there: how are schools going to be operated, how will homes have access to community centres and public parks. We want to make sure we are really taking into account the true stakeholders – not the developers, not the politicians, but the people that will truly harness what a community is all about. It’s going to the places as best as we can to find those representatives in those spaces. It’s making sure you take the due diligence and the time to not forget the people that matter.
How does active transportation fit within this 880 cities strategy ?
The starting point here is that the narrative of the war against cars is fabricated. We understand cars are here and that for some it is a necessary part of their way of getting around for some trips. However, we understand that over the past 70 years we have become way too car centric. We see our strategy not as closing down streets for active transportation, but opening up spaces for alternative mobility. We focus on this openness, and the understanding that the ability to walk or bike safely is a right. When you show people options, whether it is to get to school, to work, to a friends house or to the park without a vehicle, you start to open up opportunities for greater trips by human powered transportation and a shift in our culture of mobility.
How do you think that a culture of active transportation could liberate the patterns of these demographics in the city?
I want to first acknowledge that for black and indigenous people of colour, the concept of being able to just hop on a bike and navigate the street isn’t so easy. As a response to this summer’s events, a lot of the planning that we are doing now is creating a necessary space to start taking more fulsome approach to the people that would use active transportation. A white person’s experience of being able to walk the streets or jump on a bike will be different than that of a black male that I am. When my son and I bike through the city for example, we don’t usually use bells to go past a pedestrian. I ask my son to use his voice, to make sure people know who he is and not startle them. It’s hard to explain, you have to be black to understand that active transportation doesn’t mean safe transportation even when there is good infrastructure.
A lot of cities are grappling with this. They build a bike lane, but haven’t been calculating a whole other dimension: in which parts of the city the bike lane, if it is well lit, will people of colour feel safe using it. Who are open streets really open for? There is an understanding of the infrastructure that is needed for active transportation to grow, but the lens that has started to open up, which is that of societal infrastructure, hasn’t been broken down yet, and there is a lot of learning going on. My story matters in the context of how we get around in our cities and to enable all families to see active mobility as an option. The societal mindset needs to be layered on top of infrastructure so that when we open up the street we are opening it up for everyone.
These are important issues if we are to make active mobility a viable option for all. As a last question, how would cycling look if the needs of young children, families and caregivers be prioritised?
If you can take away the fear and make the environment safe, then getting to school as a caregiver or a child is a whole new mindset of awesomeness. Being able to get to work after as a caregiver without feeling stressed is also a huge benefit. On a bike you have the sense of being alive. It’s glorious to just go cycling, feeling free and feeling wonderful being in an environment that is safe for yourself and your kids. I’ve heard words of euphoria on streets that have protected, wide enough bike lanes. People go further than they usually go to explore more, they stop at cafes, they are more spontaneous. Cities need to have that political will to showcase the small people in our lives, the caregivers, those that don’t necessarily have a platform but are the true stakeholders that should be amplified. A city does itself a disservice to not listen to that, it would add dividends to put that perspective forward and to allow cities to grow, have vibrancy, and more fun!
Access our Report on Cycling Cities for Infants, Toddlers & Caregivers