Are pedestrian issues too pedestrian for Vancouver's bicycle-automobile wars?
"In the future, perhaps our time will be known as the first decade of the Bicycle Wars, with righteous armies fighting over traffic lanes, bike paths and sidewalks, indeed over the very purpose of the streets themselves. Like many wars, it’s a question of territory, and the pedestrian has been losing for years."
- Christopher Grey, New York Times, November 10, 2011
“Bike lanes sure to cause division” screamed the May 17 front page headline in the Vancouver Sun (online, it was later amended to a less inflammatory “Vancouver bike lanes set to expand with Commercial Drive, Point Grey Road under consideration." The same day, the lead editorial in The Province was titled “Idiotic cyclists are the bulk of the problem."
And what caused this outrage? Suggestions by City of Vancouver transportation director Jerry Dobrovolny that parts of Commercial Drive, Point Grey Road and Cornwall Avenue might be adjusted to include bike lanes.
Predictably, the stories led to online flame wars between cyclists and motorists. The Sun story attracted 124 comments, most of them very, very angry and a good many of them using CAPITAL LETTERS and exclamation marks (!!!) to make their point about gas-guzzling drivers or smug self-righteous cyclists. You could keep a Vancouver apartment warm for the winter with the heat generated by the commentators.
Meanwhile, lost in the anger and outrage was the news that the City was twinning a pedestrian trail along 58th Avenue, building new raised pedestrian crosswalks, and pedestrian bulges, and continuing to replace flashing “Don’t Walk” signals with countdown indicators. Also lost in the commotion was a City report that noted that the vast majority (82 per cent) of accidents involving pedestrians happen when pedestrians have the right of way.
It’s ironic that walking is so neglected. After all, it’s the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation (even bicycles use up resources when they’re manufactured) and the most ubiquitous. As the City’s recent Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan -- which revealed the information about the cause of pedestrian accidents -- notes, “Walking is the most fundamental form of transportation. Walking is part of every trip, whether that trip is made by car, transit, or bicycle.” Sooner or later, even the most inveterate driver or die-hard cyclist is going to have to emerge from their vehicle or dismount from their bicycle and walk to their ultimate destination.
Maybe its very ubiquity is one reason why pedestrian issues are ignored. Walking -- for those of us who are able-bodied at least -- is as natural as breathing and it can be just as mundane. It doesn’t require fancy clothes or expensive equipment. Vancouverites walk a lot -- 12 per cent of work-related commuting involves walking, the second-highest rate in North America, according to the City report.
Pedestrians are vulnerable, the report notes. While pedestrians are involved in less than 2 per cent of all traffic accidents, they account for 45 per cent of all traffic fatalities in Vancouver. Other tidbits from the report:
- a significant number of collisions occurred in the Downtown core and along arterial streets such as Broadway, 12th Avenue, 41st Avenue, Kingsway, Hastings Street, Main Street, Fraser Street, Knight Street, and Commercial Drive;
- the neighbourhoods with the highest number of collisions per capita included Strathcona, Mount Pleasant, Grandview-Woodland, Shaughnessy, and Kensington Cedar Cottage;
- young adults aged 20 to 29 are the most likely to be involved in a collision as a pedestrian, however, collisions involving seniors are more likely to result in fatality;
- children aged 9 and under account for 15.4 per cent of walking trips in Vancouver, but represent only 3.9 per cent of pedestrian collisions;
- collisions are most likely to occur on weekdays, during the winter months, and between the hours of 3 and 6 p.m.;
- the average societal cost of pedestrian collisions in Vancouver is approximately $127 million per year.
The Pedestrian Safety Study and Action Plan has several recommendations for increasing safety for walkers:
- enforce and educate people on traffic laws;
- implement appropriate and realistic laws for road users;
- lower speed limits;
- conduct more road safety campaigns;
- focus on drivers;
- continue to install engineering measures to improve safety;
- provide better infrastructure to support active transportation;
- provide more incentives to use transit.
Other suggestions include advanced walk signals so that the pedestrian right-of-way is clearly established, more raised crosswalks and improved lighting at intersections.
Councillor Heather Deal isn’t surprised that most accidents occur when the pedestrian has the right of way. The Vancouver city councillor is responsible for active transportation issues (she was recently involved with the City’s “people are fragile” awareness campaign), and she believes that walking needs to be made both safe and pleasant. Safety can be improved through the measures proposed in the report, she says, while the walking environment can be made more pleasant by such steps as increasing available sidewalk space, encouraging restaurant patios, and adding public art and more amenities such as food carts, she says.
“The public realm is such a vibrant space -- it needs to be a delight for those who are most able to enjoy it -- people on foot.”
The City is also encouraging pedestrians to take back the streets in other ways, Deal says. VIVA Vancouver, which converts street spaces “into people places and giving you extra space to walk, bike, dance, skate, sit, hang out with friends and meet your neighbours” (according to the City website) returns every weekend to Granville Street beginning June 23. Car Free Days are also returning, on June 16 in Kitsilano and June 17 on Commercial Drive, Main Street and Denman Street.
City Councillor Heather Deal
As for pedestrian safety, Deal says the City is considering adjusting the traffic signal sequence at particular intersections. Currently, at several downtown intersections (Hastings and Main, Georgia and Howe, Smythe and Hornby, for example) vehicles get an advanced green while pedestrians have to wait before they can cross. While this may ease vehicle congestion, it adds to conflict as cars continue to try to turn while pedestrians start to hurry across. Deal says some of these may be changed so that pedestrians get the advanced signal while vehicles have to wait.
Deal notes that some changes are already happening. Vancouver is gradually introducing pedestrian countdown signals at controlled intersections and is planning to experiment with “scramble” signals at some of the busiest downtown intersections. (At these intersections, besides the usual sequence of red and green lights, there’s an additional phase where all vehicular traffic has to stop while pedestrians are free to move in any direction.) The City is also building raised crosswalks and pedestrian bulges and implementing traffic calming measures at various places around Vancouver.
Ironically, many of these pedestrian improvements go unnoticed -- except to local residents -- because the City lumps them in with “cycling improvements” which get all the attention -- and controversy.
Toronto pedestrian scramble. Screenshot from Vimeo.
Another change has been the transformation of the City’s Bicycle Advisory Committee into the Active Transportation Policy Council, reflecting the realization that walking -- the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation -- needs to be encouraged.
John Whistler is a director of the West End Residents Association and a members of the active transportation council. He has been pressing for improvements to walking and cycling infrastructure for years, both in his West End neighbourhood and throughout Vancouver. He’s optimistic the council can effect real change.
“The new name reflects an increased focus on pedestrians but also I expect the policy council will consider broader issues associated with active transportation. This includes a robust public transit system that integrates pedestrian and cyclists needs better. Another emerging issue the council may have to deal with is an aging demographic that will likely see an increase in electric wheelchairs and bicycles. This will have implications for both streets and sidewalks.”
Whistler’s own ideas (which he stresses are not necessarily shared by other members of the council) include reclaiming parking space for active transportation or greening projects such as community gardens, and a blurring of sidewalks and roads, especially in laneways, which are shared by motor vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians.
Active transportation advocate John Whistler (Photo courtesy West End Residents Association).
He’s also interested in lowering speed limits for motor vehicles. “There is a direct relation to vehicle speed and pedestrian injuries and fatalities," Whistler says. "Crashes less than 30 km/hr rarely kill pedestrians and there are less serious injuries. Crashes greater than 60 km/hr almost always either kill or seriously injure the pedestrian. The report reports that pedestrians have the right of way in greater than 80 per cent of crashes. There is a compelling safety benefit to reduce vehicle speeds on most City streets.”
Whistler’s idea to lower speed limits is controversial. When Toronto’s medical officer suggested a similar limit in that city recently, the comments both from public officials (Toronto City Councillor Doug Ford called it “nuts, nuts, nuts”) and the general public was blistering.
It seems that emotions run high whenever transportation topics -- whether traffic calming, pedestrian accidents, bicycle lanes or transit fare evaders -- are mentioned. Everyone, it seems has an anecdote. For example, when I proposed this story to the Vancouver Observer’s publisher, Linda Solomon,\\ she responded with the following recollection:
“Lev (Linda’s yongest son) and I narrowly missed being struck by a car when we were crossing at the four way intersection by my house at 10th and Ash. The car ran the stop sign. I know, because Eli (Linda’s older son) witnessed the whole thing a few steps behind us. He wanted to yell a warning but actually lost the ability to yell in the moment he was so terrified as the car barreled towards us.
I managed to pull Lev back and jump out of the way, but by a hair. Another driver approaching the crosswalk saw the whole thing and stopped to be sure we were okay. Lev cried for about an hour and it took us all a while to recover. He finally got out his camera and made us all be in a video and we laughed our heads off.... But we still talk about it, the night we almost got hit by the car.”
Her near miss and similar incidents make for heated conversations about conflicts between different modes of transportation. Any time there’s a news report about an accident involving a car and a cyclist or a car and a walker, a vociferous online debate begins with hundreds of comments condemning all motorists, or all pedestrians or all cyclists in passionate, often vitriolic tones. Motorists are reckless maniacs, pedestrians are careless airheads, cyclists are self-righteous scofflaws (see The Onion for a skewered, only slightly exaggerated look at these generalizations. Slate magazine’s Tom Vanderbilt takes a more serious approach in “Why Don’t Americans Walk More”).
Whistler shakes his head at this mutual hostility between cyclists, motorists and pedestrians. “It is unfortunate that the media and opponents of change frame this as cars vs. cyclists issue. The reality is that motorists also benefit from better transportation choices. However this messaging is difficult in short media sound bites and it doesn't sell newspapers.”
He hopes the active transportation council’s new promotion and partnership committee can help improve relationships among pedestrians, cyclists and motorists.
Deal certainly hopes so. She points out that we're all human and sometimes we do foolish things. We’re forgetful. We’re careless. We’re distracted. Neither drivers, pedestrians nor cyclists have a monopoly on virtue -- or stupidity.
“Yesterday," says Deal, "I was on my bike and I saw a dozen incidents of drivers doing something unsafe. It was the same for cyclists and quite a few pedestrians. Education is necessary for all modes of transportation. Often, it’s just a matter of being courteous.”
That’s why the City’s report is so welcome. It provides actual evidence about the causes of accidents and conflicts, along with recommendations to lessen the conflict between cars, walkers and cyclists and to make us more aware of each other and our mutual fragility.