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Most British Columbians don't oppose the '15-minute city' — even if they don't understand it

Regarded by some as part of an ongoing "war on the car," the concept can be polarizing, and opinions vary across Canada.
The urban planning "15-minute city" concepts posits that daily necessities and services should be reachable after a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any point in a particular city.

The term “15-minute city” is making the rounds across social media platforms in Canada, bringing along the kind of polarized debate that is usually reserved for the latter stages of electoral contests.

The urban planning concept posits that daily necessities and services – such as work, shopping, education, health care and entertainment – should be reachable after a 15-minute walk or bike ride from any point in a particular city.

Some drivers have regarded the “15-minute city” as another episode of the so-called “war on the car.” It is not new, especially for Metro Vancouverites, to see warring factions taking sides on Twitter and Facebook over issues such as the ubiquity of bike lanes or the perils that speed reduction efforts pose upon drivers. The new debate is eerily similar in its avoidance of subtlety.

When Research Co. and Glacier Media asked Canadians about the “15-minute city,” the results point to a public that is mostly oblivious. In our survey, only 33 per cent of the country’s residents say they had heard of the concept. Awareness is highest among Canadians aged 18 to 34 (45 per cent) but drops for their counterparts aged 35 to 54 (34 per cent) and aged 55 and over (22 per cent).

In Alberta, where Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi has prominently discussed the concept in the past couple of months, 41 per cent of residents know about the “15-minute city.” The proportions are lower in British Columbia (37 per cent), Ontario (36 per cent), Quebec (32 per cent), Saskatchewan and Manitoba (29 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (22 per cent).

When Canadians are asked if they support or oppose the “15-minute city,” 63 per cent are in favour, while 16 per cent are against it and 22 per cent are undecided. Support for the concept is more likely to be moderate (36 per cent) than strong (27 per cent).

There is little difference in the perceptions of Canadians of all ages and genders. Opposition to the “15-minute city” reaches 21 per cent in Alberta, drops slightly in both Ontario (18 per cent) and Quebec (17 per cent) and falls to single digits in British Columbia (eight per cent).

We asked Canadians about five possible consequences that the implementation of the “15-minute city” would bring to their community. For more than three in five Canadians (63 per cent), the concept is destined to reduce the use of personal automobiles – an assumption that reaches 71 per cent in British Columbia.

One of the heralded benefits of the “15-minute city” is the increased mental health and well-being of residents. Not having to sit for more than 15-minutes in traffic can reduce stress for drivers, and the existence of reachable amenities would entice residents to walk or bike more often.

More than half of Canadians (53 per cent) indeed believe that the mental health and well-being of residents would be enhanced if their community adopted the “15-minute city” concept. Majorities of Canadians who commute on weekdays by taking public transit (56 per cent) or driving a vehicle (58 per cent) agree on this purported benefit.

The way in which Canadians regard two other effects, both of which have formed the basis of online vitriol against the “15-minute city”, is also noteworthy. More than two in five (43 per cent) expect the concept to lead to increased government surveillance and control, while more than a third (37 per cent) foresee a reduction in personal freedoms.

The most far-fetched argument levelled against the “15-minute city” suggests that residents will be fined if they leave their “home districts”. Although no such regulation has been discussed as part of any possible rollout of the concept, more than one in four Canadians (27 per cent) believe this dystopian delusion could materialize.

While world class cities such as Barcelona, Milan and Paris have implemented policies geared at achieving the “15-minute city”, discussions in Canada are in their infancy. Canadians are not paying much attention to the concept at this time, but become supportive after learning more about what it seeks to accomplish.

At this point, we see that majorities of Canadians are able to look forward to a municipality in which personal vehicles are used sparingly and our mental health improves, but there are significant pockets of baseless dismay on issues such as surveillance and personal freedoms. The proponents of the "15-minute city” are in for an intense confrontation. As long-time observers of municipal politics can corroborate, not every Twitter and Facebook ranter and raver is as “fine” as they assume to be.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from March 18 to March 20, 2023, among 1,000 Canadian adults. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.