Seven years ago, a handful of City of Edmonton staff huddled around a conference table to brainstorm ideas to jumpstart active transportation in their City. One of them held up MassDOT’s recently released Separated Bike Lane Planning & Design Guide, developed by Toole Design. “This! This is what we need for Edmonton.” Inspired, they set in motion a plan for their City that would start shifting the perspective of Edmontonians toward active transportation.
Fast forward to 2022 and two of the people from that conference room are now leading Toole Design’s efforts in Edmonton and throughout Western Canada. Tyler Golly joined Toole Design in 2018, went on to establish the Edmonton office later that year, and currently serves as Western Canada Market Lead. Last week, we were thrilled to welcome Olga Messinis as Edmonton Office Director.
Olga spent 18 years at the City of Edmonton, starting in junior civil works project roles in neighborhood renewal, and eventually serving as Director of Traffic Operations. Her career has spanned planning, design, construction, the importance of understanding operations, traffic management in a constantly evolving world, and the big budgets associated with keeping a city of 1 million people moving safely. Read on to learn more about Olga’s impressive track record, her journey to Toole Design, and her visions for the future.
what have been the key moments in your career that set you on your path?
Early on my career interests were in traffic management, specifically the nuances around how we move around in our daily lives. I had identified early on that if we were going to stave off the inevitable struggles that beget car-oriented cities, we needed to incorporate alternatives that are safe, connected, and intuitive. Equitable access to transportation systems was something I felt strongly about, and that sentiment underscored my own work and became a core value and guiding principle. Ultimately, we are people that are part of a greater ecosystem that is living, breathing, and evolving. It is important that during that evolution, we leave no one behind.
At my career mid-point, I took on the role of Engineering Operations Supervisor and was managing the network of streets in the City’s core communities, including the downtown. Conveniently, the core would be where all the opportunities for active transportation improvements would present themselves. Working cross-functionally with our transportation planning and design teams, we built strong relationships internally and externally and, in many ways, achieved what we thought was impossible: reallocating over 7.8 km of downtown roadway to a fully protected, signalized, all ages and abilities bike network in under 9 months. While I led that project for the City, the greatest insight for me was that big, culture-shifting transformations don’t happen without strong dedicated teams that share in the successes and lessons each project offers. Leadership and success occurs at all levels.
What are some of your favorite projects?
During my tenure in Edmonton, I worked on some significant transformational projects including pride crosswalks, implementing 10 pedestrians scrambles, the 7.8km protected bike network downtown, the planning of the south side bike network, temporary street patio programs, and even a smart traffic signals pilot. The Summer Streets program was developed over the last 2 years of the pandemic. This is the permanent, seasonal allocation of roadway space for active uses in the City’s River Valley core. The Summer Streets link central communities on both sides of the river where population density is high but available sidewalk and shared pathway space is limited. They seal the gaps in the existing active transportation network by linking existing protected bike routes and shared pathways, with a focus on accessibility and connectivity. Projects like these can demonstrate great value and inform investments for a more sustainable transportation future. Personally, projects that transform the public realm and invite people to experience it with ease are what I enjoy and look forward to.
What are you excited to pursue at toole design, and what’s your vision for the edmonton office?
Municipalities and public jurisdictions/agencies know there is a need to think differently around a shift in urban form and reclaim public spaces to meet the challenges of growth and climate adaptation. Cities are investing in change and they have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to get it right. I think Toole Design’s innovation and expertise can help deliver a stronger product that creates greater connection and resilience for communities for many years to come. Leaving an 18-year career was not an easy decision, but Toole Design’s trusted expertise and values aligned strongly with my own, and I want to apply what I have learned over my career to help many more communities build safe and equitable transportation networks. At Toole Design, I can still help Edmonton as well as other municipalities.
I’m really excited to work with the team at Toole and gain a new perspective. Looking at the breadth and scope of work that the company takes on and how collaborative it is, by design, I’m hoping to shatter any of the groupthink that inevitably happens when you are with one municipality for an extended period of time. This will benefit our clients, too, because a lot of people don’t know what they don’t know. I’m excited to continue learning things that haven’t crept into my consciousness yet and help others to do the same.
And I am blown away by the small yet mighty Edmonton office. I look forward to working with Tyler to respond to the growth of the Canadian market and continue to increase our talent and skill base. The Edmonton team is already so connected and so energized—I can’t wait to tap into their shared goals and help clients get an even better product.
What are your favorite things about Edmonton? How do you get around the City?
Edmonton is plunged in a deep winter for 5 months of the year, but it’s not all freezing all the time. Our bike trails and golf courses convert to Nordic ski trails, and ponds freeze over to become skating rinks. Edmonton is a festival city and there is no shortage of things to do. Especially in the summer when the sun sets at 9 PM.
I live centrally and mostly bike and walk everywhere I need to go. A few years ago I got studded tires for my winter bike to stave off the deadly freeze thaw cycles. The studs gave me the confidence to commute all winter long… unless it was below -20C. That’s when transit suits me just fine.