Planning for All Needs: With Jillian Banfield

8 min. read
Jillian Banfield is the Bicycle Mayor of Halifax, Canada. She holds a PhD in Social Psychology, and has been a board member of the Halifax Cycling Coalition, as well as a member of the Accessibility Advisory Committee for the Halifax Regional Municipality. 

How did you become involved in cycling advocacy ?

My advocacy really began when I joined the local cycling coalition as a board member upon returning to live in Halifax. As an adult, I had always been riding a bike and cared about environmental justice and active transportation but becoming a board member was the first formal step in that direction. 

There’s the assumption that all people who cycle are able-bodied, but cycling is often a tool for empowerment for people with disabilities. How have you seen this in your work with different communities?

Over time, I’ve realised two things. Firstly, that I am disabled, as my arthritis progressed in my 30s, and secondly, that in popular media, in communications about cycling, it’s not something that people talk about. I had stumbled upon cycling as a way to continue being active without pain, to move around independently, in a way that was consistent with my values of being as light as possible on the environment. Realising that I didn’t see disability representation in cycling I felt it was important to talk about myself, and as I did other people started telling their stories too.

Through these conversations we also came to realise how disability is broad in scope, and how cycling is useful to people that may be able-bodied but have other disabilities. People with ADHD or autism for example find cycling as a better way to get around for a variety of reasons. It’s also opened up connections to my community here and I feel really privileged to have learnt so much from so many people who shared their stories about what cycling could do for them if they are given the opportunity.

Infrastructure primarily in Halifax is lacking for people to cycle safely, which makes it difficult to bring awareness and promote cycling. Access to cycles is also expensive, and the intersection between disability and poverty reinforces that. If we want to increase mobility options for disabled people we need to subsidise and facilitate access to the tool itself. In Nova Scotia for example, there is a small rebate for e-assist bikes but there is no rebate for a regular bike or an adaptive bike, which is an oversight.  

You worked with Halifax Cycling and invited people to respond to an online survey about what “all abilities”means. Can you elaborate on some of the answers that were provided?

That project really came about from Halifax’s intention of having what they refer to as an “all ages and abilities cycling plan”, for which they have the funding and the masterplan. In my role first as a board member for the Halifax Cycling Coalition and then on committees for the city on accessibility and active transportation I had the opportunity to talk to city staff and planners about how they defined an all abilities cycling route for example.

Surprisingly, they usually gave inconsistent or not very concrete explanations of what that would mean. It started to bother me for a long time, as I was wondering if they meant somebody who would perhaps be using a wheelchair and transfer to a cycle such as a recumbent cycle could use that route. In my experience of using our infrastructure to date, I didn’t think that would be possible. I wanted to push them on that and get them to tell me what they meant so I could hold them accountable on design.

As I started my Bicycle Mayor term, it was an opportunity to ask people what they think all abilities means and what it could mean to them for cycling. With the cycling coalition we teamed up for a report and put out a survey to the community to try and see if there was a shared understanding, and if it meant disability. That survey was also an opportunity to collect people’s own experiences about using bikes as mobility aids. Around the time I was working on this, I was following the work of Gabrielle Peters, a disability advocate in Vancouver who also served on her active transportation committee. I have to give her credit in terms of rethinking what all abilities means, and how often we are too scared to even say the word “disability”, to acknowledge what it means.

What we learned from it is that people don’t think all abilities means disability. It’s unsurprising as the city hasn’t done the work to explain what they mean, and it’s not an easily accessible concept for people. People understood it more about cycling ability, so there were references to children’s skills etc. It’s also problematic if the all abilities term is meant to define disability as people clearly don’t understand it or are not interpreting it that way. Even if the city says the infrastructure on the ground is all abilities, as a disabled person I will tell the city that it doesn’t meet my needs.

Difficult to navigate cycling infrastructure in Halifax
Difficult to navigate cycling infrastructure. Photo courtesy of Jillian Banfield.

Transportation planning is dominated by able bodied men, which has had consequences on how cities have been built for centuries – how can the diversity of voices of people with disabilities be better integrated into planning and policy? 

This is the core issue. We need disabled people in decision making positions. I did see improvements when I was serving on various committees where active transportation planners were bringing their plans to people who use wheelchairs, are blind, or are deaf for example. They wanted to talk about the impacts of these plans, so that was a good step, but it’s not a consistent part of their process and it’s unclear how that feedback gets used. I think there needs to be disability representation at every step, and that includes the staff themselves, whether that is through training or lived experience. This means moving past the traditional guidelines and documents. NACTO documents are good for example, but others speak specifically to disabilities, such as the Wheels for Wellbeing guide. If we starting with those who have the highest access needs, everyone will benefit.

There’s a project I’m working on with an advocacy group called Walk n’ Roll, who focus on pedestrians, and we have both noticed issues around public engagement regarding active transportation more broadly. We are working to highlight stories of more vulnerable people, for example the immigrant mom who lives without a car in the suburbs and needs to get her kids to daycare, thinking about what are the possibilities for getting around, and if new planning project meet their needs. We need to start with the most vulnerable people, who have the fewest mobility options.

In your recent blog covering Modacity’s new book you mention how too often, accessibility and active transportation are pitted against each other, and that disabled people are weaponised on both sides. How does this happen?

That’s another idea that I encountered and thought about more after reading it from Gabrielle Peters. I recently spoke with Doug Gordon about this for the War on Cars podcast, and I feel I need to talk about more as I see it play out in digital spaces like twitter a lot. In North America, people assume that disabled people don’t use active transportation, and solely use cars to get around. That’s patently false. A lot of of disabled people certainly use cars as mobility aids, but there are lots of disabled people who cannot drive or cannot afford to drive. Disability and poverty are very closely linked so that is not a given option.

What I see is that when a new bike lane is announced, the anti-bike lane group says that disabled people won’t be able to access something on that street because they won’t be able to drive there or they won’t have accessible parking. On the flip side, when I say I use my bike as a mobility aid, people love that and that’s great, but I will also see it getting used against car access arguments saying look, “this disabled person uses a bike!”. It’s not all one way or the other, we need to plan for disabled people’s different and diverse access needs. In my case it’s being able to bike right up to the front door of a building, and for somebody else it might mean being dropped off by a car at an accessible part of the street. It’s a concerning trend as it’s a use of disabled people’s experience rather than an elevation of our voices and letting us speak for ourselves. We should be talking about access needs and how a planning process can meet all of our needs, rather than being used as props on different sides of an argument.

How can the cycle advocates be better allies to the cause of more inclusive active travel?

When I collaborated with the cycling coalition in this report, it was a fantastic experience. They trusted me to be a guiding voice, and used their platform to promote it. I’ve also seen how my perspective and my work has infiltrated their communications, and their advocacy with councillors. They have taken to heart learnings from me and the voices in the report. So the collaboration piece is really important.

Reaching out to different groups and understanding the diversity of perspectives and elevating those voices is also key. Doing internal work, and thinking about details that that are often not taken into consideration such as alt-text for images and captioning videos for example is key. If that work is done, as persons with disabilities we are more likely to trust and engage with those groups.

physically challenging access to cycling infrastructure
physically challenging access to cycling infrastructure “beg button”. Photo courtesy of Jillian Banfield.