Whether though innate ability or practice, a good planner can see the purpose and challenges in urban environments — even when obscured or hidden — and be able to also see its former state. And its future state. How we got here, and how to get to where we're going.
The planner is historian, futurist and policy-maker rolled into one, with this ability to combine rational thought with creative vision. The really good ones, or perhaps the really patient ones, will see those visions become reality.
After all, who else builds our future cities?
I didn't literally think all this when I sat with Tamim for lunch in Mount Pleasant at the close of summer. (Maybe something similar, though.)
Instead, near the end of our discussion, I watched him flip through photos from a recent trip to Europe. On his iPhone, he used those little animated scenes to play out a demonstration of how streets work when designed for active transportation, and then contrasted it with the little scenes playing outside our window onto Main Street. It was effective.
It also obviously gave him great joy, probably because he knows what's possible. And he seems to like challenges.
I look at this through a planning eye. What we do right now in planning and design is we take the pedestrian off the sidewalk and we put them onto the street at every intersection.
In Amsterdam and Copenhagen and London even they don't do that. In Dutch cities, the car is a guest. The pedestrian stays and the car is a guest when it comes over the sidewalk. So it forces them to slow down. This is just one example of how a mindset changes.
He flipped through photo after photo. A cyclist flitting past the screen, a vehicle inching forward.
That car right here is slowing down as it's coming up, and it's not speeding though there. It knows it's about to encounter a cyclist.
That cyclist knows that that car is coming at it very slowly from across corners.
Flick, flick flick....examples of urban transportation infrastructure that grace European cities, which Tamim, as an independent urban planner, is striving to import to Metro Vancouver.
Tamim came to Vancouver from Toronto in the late eighties, to go to UBC. As the age-old story goes, he got hooked.
The city, the greenery, the mountains, the beauty of it, the ocean — all the things that draw people to Vancouver.
I did my undergrad in Commerce, and became much more interested in cities, urban environmental issues. I read an article in the Vancouver Sun on the new regional plan for Metro Vancouver. There was a planning director talking about regional growth issues, and how transportation was so central to Metro Vancouver being a better place. I looked at that and said, I want that job.
Tamim went back to UBC, and it was at the School of Community and Regional Planning (SCARP) that he made crucial connections between the activism-advocacy dynamic, and with the people active in the cycling advocacy movement at the time. He doesn't say 'click' but it's obvious there was one.
I was pretty full of energy and almost a bit of anger at the time. I was very aware of how difficult it was to ride your bike around the city. I was a pretty hardy cyclist, I still am. I don't mind riding on a major street, I don't have fear of traffic.
But at the end of the day I think we also needed to get government funding. My interest was actually getting government infrastructure funding towards cycling, and creating broad awareness about what cycling issues were, creating an appetite.
Because there were a lot of people out there that did want to cycle, that didn't know what was needed to actually make the cycling environment better for them.
In 1993, as part of a small group of transportation-minded urban thinkers and activists, Tamim took his vision and energy to the Better Environmentally Sound Transportation (B.E.S.T.) Board, helping to steer it down a path towards self-reliance and a broadened mandate. The young organization with it's young leaders raised funds, established new programs, and brought on paid staff, including a permanent executive director.
One of the more startling concepts that came to fruition in Tamim's tenure, and in part under his guidance, was the Alternative Transportation Centre
An advocacy resource centre slash bike shop, the Alternative Transportation Centre was located under Main Street Skytrain at the retail level, around the corner from the Vancity, one of two funders on the project (along with Environment Canada).
Even with all the bike friendly developments in Vancouver over the last decade, if you weren't around at the time, it's hard to believe that this existed, especially given the modest, often home-based, working conditions of the BCCC, B.E.S.T., HUB and HASTe organizations today.
The Alternative Transportation Centre was this initiative to try to give a little bit more formality to providing bicycle training and education, in some ways doing bicycle advocacy in a more formal way.
One of the things it did was created that kernel of staff presence that could develop programs, that became the ongoing resource of the organization B.E.S.T. at the time. Bike to Work Week got started out of that too.
That created some of that tension for B.E.S.T. — whether it was an advocacy organization or a program organization.
Though perhaps a theme during the early advocacy days at the Bicycling Association of BC (today's Cycling BC), that tension between two philosophical (and also practical) models of advocacy was first given its true road test in Greater Vancouver by B.E.S.T. during its first decade, during which Tamim also played a central role.
Is it best for change to come by way of pushing from the outside, using tactics more closely associated with civil disobedience and protest? Or should change come by forming relationships with decision-makers, and helping them make the right choices through less coercive measures?
If you choose the former method, are you an easily-dismissed table-pounder? If you opt for the latter, are you a traitor who cedes high ground, too afraid to bite the hand that feeds you?
Critical Mass was critically important — we actually had to stop traffic to get people's attention to get news stories out there about how abysmal the infrastructure was.
But I was also a very pragmatic person at the time. I felt that it was important to appeal to decision-makers and a broader audience to really communicate what the issues were, and a positive path to be able to affect change.
I worked with B.E.S.T. up until 1999, and then I left advocacy to become a bureaucrat. I felt was really important, which was to create the change from within the organizations and the bureaucratic structures.
Joining Translink, the regional transportation authority, as staff in 1999 turned out to be one of the better examples of becoming the change you want to see in the world. Responsible at various points for managing the mechanism and decision-making process for distributing cycling infrastructure funds to member municipalities, and writing the organization's annual strategic plan, in a relatively short period of time Tamim was able to directly effect change. He also gained some pretty valuable insights into the role advocacy in the grand scheme of things.
Translink's real power is in allocating funding and setting criteria for how that funding gets used. So it's in a very powerful position.
What advocates need to know is that Translink has all these internal pressures and needs external pressure to make sure that it doesn't cut those when times are tight. Or that it allocates a fair and reasonable amount and gets supported for that.
Those types of things don't happen unless there's external pressure.
One of the interesting take-aways from talking to Tamim is the although his advocacy was always seemingly informed by an interest in working within the bureaucracy to obtain change, he didn't stop valuing or perhaps expecting the advocacy push for better, faster, more. Just like, despite being a hardened cyclist (his words), his efforts at Translink included support for projects like the Central Valley Greenway, "a high standard, traffic separated facility, that can get kids and women to cycle more."
As a strategist and planner, both within the bureaucracy and as a consultant, Tamim is another one of those people flying below the radar, making an impact on the city and region after spending so long in the advocacy trenches.
He has colourful stories to tell.
Such as his role reviving B.E.S.T. newsletter The Spoke'n Word, which, though a series of events over five or six years, ultimately let to Momentum Magazine.
And his work, in the guise of alter ego T.Raax, as a member of Dinosaurs Against Fossil Fuels, a very real political party which led to a very real mayoral run in 1999.
Critical Mass rides, theatrical farces, political clashes...these are the things that marked some of the early days of advocacy. And yet Tamim is also realistic about how, exciting though the early days might have been, change may have been in some ways inevitable.
The Alternative Transportation Centre and the formation of Bike to Work Week and those programs started a broader formalization of a lot of initiatives that you see today. It really did take concerted action and a lot of people to make the change.
But the demographic changed, to be honest with you. Those people who felt really passionately about the issues moved out of their twenties into their thirties and forties. They became decision-makers. And so when you had one councillor in the 1990s who cycled — Gordon Price, he was pushing change uphill — to the early 2000s where all of a sudden you have four or five city councillors and the mayor who are already cyclists.
Because they had been cycling in their twenties, and seen the abysmal infrastructure that was out there, and became part of that push for change from within.
It's pretty compelling, this idea that if you wait long enough, a wave change of progressives will gain positions of influence and power. It takes patience, but it also takes a leap of faith - that the next generation of councillors and mayors will be on the side of progress, innovation and transportation equity.
So while he's hopeful, and maybe has seen enough change happen from within to feel it might become the new normal, Tamim is also smart enough to know all power is temporal. Nothing can be taken for granted. Cycling infrastructure can easily be deprioritized, for whatever reason or another.
All it takes is a shift in government at the municipal level or at the provincial level to set things back. I was there though several cycles at Translink where that funding that we had put in place and put into plans got cut back or deferred. And it probably wouldn't have happened if there was enough of a strong push from the outside to keep it.
Whenever these budgets are tight, this is the stuff that gets cut first. Unless there's somebody that's going to squeak. And if nobody's squeaking about it, nobody's complaining about it, then it's an easy cut.
I worry about that now — even though there are a lot of positive things happening, it's not enough.