Are pedestrian issues too pedestrian for Vancouver's bicycle-automobile wars?
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.