SFU epidemiologist receives Trailblazer Award for active transportation research

Professor Meghan Winters was a recognized researcher for population and public health

PHOTO: Roman Koester / Unsplash

Written by: Emma Jean, Staff Writer

SFU health sciences associate professor Dr. Meghan Winters was awarded the Trailblazer Award by The Canadian Institute of Health Research. It recognizes her career-long work in researching public health, mobility, and transportation. 

The award, for Population and Public Health Research, specifically acknowledges her achievements within the field of active transportation, done by bicycle and foot, and her role in researching how cities can plan infrastructure to make these options accessible for all people. 

In Dr. Winters’ research, the impact of different active transportation policies on the populations that use them is analyzed. “With any of these kinds of initiatives, there are often unintended consequences,” she told The Peak. “As a population health researcher, I’m looking for the impact of these things, who are they impacting the most, and who might they actually be harming.”

This has taken form in research labs focusing on how active transportation impacts the well-being and community of cities, like the Interventions, Research, and Action in Cities Team, or INTERACT, with which she is a principal investigator. The program is one of the first of its kind to use publicly-sourced data, in the form of exercise app Strava, on which users track their cycling or running routes. 

“We need to get a sense of where we see more cyclists in the city. It’s hard to get really rich spatiotemporal data [which accounts where cyclists are in time and space], so with this sort of citizen science data by using things like Strava, we can get a richer picture of where people are cycling across the city and get really nuanced data.”

In previous research, Dr. Winters studied the mobility of older adults and its impact on their environment at the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute, which informs her work today. “We’re looking for how community design impacts people across all ages and abilities, and that might be people as they age as well. I want to highlight that the experiences of people as they age are very heterogeneous.” 

She described the complexities of aging, and how a city’s planning impacts it as something worth researching. “Often what I’m doing is trying to unpack common myths [ . . . ] there’s always nuance to those stories. It’s about reaching out to individuals and getting different perspectives and understanding how a particular design or program or policy affects them directly, and what the specifics might be for them.”

In regards to the future of her work, she sees the COVID-19 pandemic as having a major impact her research in two ways: one related to active transportation, specifically how new outdoor facilities to accommodate social distancing impacts it, and the other related to what she calls “social connectedness,” and how public infrastructure can facilitate it. 

“As soon as [our physical communities have] been taken away from us, we all realise ‘God, what would I do if I didn’t have places to connect with people; if I couldn’t get out there and meet face-to-face with people; if there’s not a public space where we can get together and meet with each other and be warm enough, to be sheltered from the rain?’ 

“We’ve been doing this work for a number of years and perhaps it wasn’t as easy to get funded, but I would say right now, it turns out now to be a high priority and high recognition in terms of the importance of understanding the health benefits and creating communities for where people can feel connected.”