Keep roads closed for cyclists and pedestrians
I run a communications and executive advisory firm; since mid-March, our clients have scrambled to navigate the grand mess caused by the COVID-19 crisis, racing to keep pace with the needs of employees and customers while trying to plan for whatever the pandemic brings next.
Right now the biggest anxiety for many organizations — at least those in relatively stable sectors — isn’t about Zoom calls or work-from-home policies. It’s fear of missing the moment. As much as COVID-19 presents challenges, it also presents opportunity, and no leader wants their organization left behind once the dust finally clears.
Smart companies are already scouring for opportunities, leveraging whatever data they can gather. Not to do so is to risk being outpaced by competitors who had better foresight and the courage to act. For businesses, COVID- 19 proves the old hockey aphorism: you need to skate to where the puck is going.
Governments must have the same mindset. No one has a COVID-19 crystal ball, but in some instances the ground shift brought on by the coronavirus has revealed policy opportunities with such clarity that they now seem obvious.
Take, as one important local example, the temporary extension of active-transportation routes along nine of Winnipeg’s most scenic streets. This extension should be made permanent, at least from spring through fall — not only because Winnipeg families are embracing these routes in enormous numbers, but because the health and economic rationale makes an indefinite expansion objectively compelling.
Things that are easy, cheap and pay a big dividend are things we should be pursuing. Consider four reasons:
1. Current levels of physical activity are stubbornly low, which translates into enormous, avoidable health spending and reduced business productivity. Federal data show just two in 10 Canadian adults meets Canada’s physical activity guidelines. Among kids, it’s one in 10.
Health-care spending in Canada is already wildly unsustainable. The Conference Board of Canada has noted provinces are now spending up to half of all revenues on health care, making clear that better disease prevention efforts and wellness promotion — such as helping people become and stay active — are the only sane and financially sustainable options.
Right now we have throngs of people engaging in pro-health behaviours, walking and cycling on safe, scenic, accessible streets. Bike stores are sold out as people discover (or rediscover) the simple pleasure of gliding along a quiet street. As any change-management expert will tell you, when the wind is in your favour you don’t start rowing against it.
Winnipeg should be looking to embrace and build on this natural momentum toward greater physical activity, not interrupt it. Policy change rarely becomes easier.
2. Macro trends tell us a significant portion of the workforce will be working from home for the foreseeable future, and perhaps forever. This raises an immediate need for accessible places for exercise and recreation close to where people live. Making local active-transportation routes permanent is a profoundly simple, low-cost means to help meet this need. The financial benefits to business are clear. Study after study demonstrates a link between exercise and increased productivity.
3. Mental-health needs are soaring in the wake of COVID-19. Major mental-health organizations are already warning of an “echo pandemic,” which will translate into enormous social and economic costs. Greater walking and cycling options are far from a panacea, but the correlation between physical activity, time spent outdoors among trees and mental health is well-documented.
4. We risk surrendering our competitive edge to other cities. Across Canada, cities are already moving to rapidly expand their post-COVID-19 walking and cycling networks, often for the reasons above. These quality-of-life factors are a key part of the formula for what makes a city competitive, and they’re part of the draw for the highly educated, high-earning-potential, entrepreneurial talent we desperately need to retain.
Other cities are moving forward right now. Winnipeg will be leapfrogged if we let the opportunity pass us by. It’s been a joy over these past few weeks to see local streets full of families enjoying our amazing city together. But the policy decision to keep this important momentum going is about more than a pleasant bike ride. It’s about simple economics.
*David Leibl is founder of OnCallComms.com, a Winnipeg-based communications and executive advisory firm.*