Meghan Winters advocates for healthy cities where air pollution is kept in check and residents have plenty of safer options to walk, run and bike
“I look at my work in terms of promoting physical activity rather than treating sickness,” says Meghan Winters. As a population health researcher and assistant professor in SFU’s Faculty of Health Sciences, she looks at how urban design can encourage (or discourage) activity levels in cities. “Incorporating more activity into our routines is crucial since inactivity is one of the biggest risk factors for many diseases,” she says. Working toward a goal of facilitating active transportation, she collaborates with communities, city planners and advisory committees to encourage complementary infrastructure projects.
Winters’ team at SFU’s Spatial Data Lab specializes in geospatial data measurement with an eye toward advancing physical activity research and population health interventions. She is also part of several SSHRC and CIHR-funded projects to identify best practices for promoting public health through walking, cycling, or transit across ages and abilities.
A cycling enthusiast herself, Winters is also involved in
BikeMaps.org, a collaborative effort by researchers at SFU and the University of Victoria to use data collected by cyclists worldwide via an app to map collisions, near misses, and bike thefts experienced on their commutes. This data will be used to empower cyclists to plan safer routes and to push city planners to make infrastructure improvements.
To get an idea of how important her work could be toward addressing environmental and public health crises, consider Metro Vancouver. It consistently ranks as one of the most congested urban centres in North America, plus, the city’s population is projected to grow by 1 million residents by 2040. Encouraging people to choose active transportation methods could reduce the number of cars idling in traffic, making a dent in the emissions associated with increased mortality from heart and respiratory-related conditions.
Winters’ research also suggests that it is more dangerous to walk or cycle in BC as compared to traveling by car (when adjusted for trip frequency). A 2013 study she co-authored challenged common preconceptions about the safest ways to travel and highlighted the need for more safety measures for pedestrians and cyclists. She sees these findings as a call to action for cities to implement evidence-supported interventions, such as adding more crosswalks, streetlights and segregated bike lanes.
In addition to her work on bikeability, Winters is leading research to better understand what makes our neighbourhoods age-friendly. She and her team have developed a documentary-style video titled “I’d Rather Stay” which explores the realities of growing older in one’s own home and neighbourhood, targeting both stakeholder groups and the public. It endeavours to direct attention to the challenges faced by cities when accommodating an aging demographic.
Such unwieldy issues of sustainability and public health will take a concerted and sustained effort to address and this needs to be done so in a timely manner. By sharing research-based knowledge of how cities across Canada can be made more bikeable, walkable and amenable to all age groups, Winters’ research is contributing to winning solutions.
Dr. Meghan Winters is an epidemiologist who is interested in the link between health, transportation, and city design. Her research focuses on ways that cities can play a role in promoting mobility and health for people of all ages and abilities. She values knowledge translation and has a partnership with the US company Walk Score to create “Bike Scores”, now available for over 100 cities across North America. She has received fellowship and grant funding from the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research.
Q & A with Meghan Winters
what motivates you as a researcher? Our cities are changing around us every day. This means infinite opportunities, small and large, to make decisions that could support healthier behaviours. I’m motivated to generate related evidence and ensure it is shared with decision-makers to promote healthy communities.
how important is collaboration in research? Absolutely critical. In my applied population health program, the research I do is motivated by questions raised by my partners: decision-makers in municipalities, health authorities and advocacy groups. Their engagement in the process is essential to success and is fundamental to having intersectoral impact.
sfu bills itself as “canada’s most engaged research university.” how does your work exemplify this spirit of engagement? In addition to engaged research, I have also built this into my teaching. Through the CityStudio program, I teach courses which connect SFU undergraduate students with City of Vancouver staff to address challenges in today’s city building. These experiences are creative and eye-opening for our students and enable them to tap into their energy and knowledge to suggest real-world solutions.