“Shared Responsibility” messaging ignores our Basic Human Responsibilites – to look out for the more vulnerable among us.

Let me paint you a picture of a hypothetical situation.

I’m a large man – I’m over 6 feet tall, and nobody has ever mistaken me for a sprinter.  Linebacker is a more apt comparison.  So imagine that I’m in a crowded mall, maybe during the holiday rush.  I’ve got a lot on my mind and on my plate – I’m trying to get all of my shopping done quickly so that I can go home and make dinner for my family.  I’m moving through the crowd at a brisk pace, passing slower-moving shoppers, my thoughts keenly trained on getting to the store where I know the last gift on my list is waiting.

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A hypothetical mall where hypothetical me is shopping for hypothetical gifts

As I round the corner near the food court, a toddler, maybe 3 years old, makes a break from his mother – he’s heading towards the mall Santa at considerable speed.  As I’m walking past an older lady pushing a walker, the child, not looking where he is going, runs smack into the side of my right knee as it swings forward into the next stride.  The boy is knocked down, and begins to cry.

Now in spite of the fact that it was the child that ran into me, that I was simply walking in a straight line and he ran directly into my path, I can guarantee you that it is me who apologizes in this situation. I certainly apologize to his mother, I make sure he’s OK, and I generally feel awful about the whole situation. And, in all likelihood, I should feel awful.  In most instances, I’m alert enough and aware enough of my surroundings to preemptively see a runaway toddler and avoid that collision. But in this case I was hurried and distracted, and I missed the cues.  We all do this often, I’m sure.  When we’re in an area like a mall or an amusement park, we’re hyper-aware of fast moving young people, and we take steps to avoid them colliding with us. As larger, stronger individuals, we take it upon ourselves to make sure that our actions don’t cause injury to a more vulnerable person.

And that brings me to the point of this post: It seems as though that sense of duty and care that we all apply while we’re walking up and vanishes when we get into a car.

Lately, there’s been a barrage of messaging from various agencies, whether they be in Ontario or beyond, taking aim at the behaviours of people walking and cycling. From messages about wearing bright, reflective clothing to talking about the (invented) scourge of distracted walking to asking pedestrians to remove their earbuds while walking, much of the focus of these messages are on the behaviours of people walking.

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Bright orange flags help keep full-grown people, who would otherwise apparently be invisible “safe”. Cross without this vital safety device at your own risk!

Now let’s be clear – people do have a responsibility to look out for their own safety. I don’t advocate wearing headphones, blaring loud music while playing Candy Crush on your phone and walking out into free-flowing traffic. But to continuously shift the onus onto people walking by demonizing the very things that make walking so enjoyable – listening to music, staring up at the buildings, enjoying conversations and the sights and sounds of your environment, the ability to simply get up and go without needing to strap on lights, reflective safety vests and protective helmets, belies the fact that the vast majority of injuries to people walking occur because the person driving didn’t obey the law.  They most often failed to yield the right of way at an intersection, although there are lots of other causes as well.

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How collisions involving people driving and walking occur in Brampton, which happens to be in Peel Region.

One of the worst examples of this culture of victim-blaming I’ve seen to date came, unfortunately, from Peel Regional Police.  During their “Pedestrian Safety Week“, Peel Police offer such gems of advice like “Don’t rely solely on traffic signals or stop signs.  Ensure that it is safe to cross the road before crossing”.  At the end of their list of advice, which includes the usual “wear reflective clothing”, “cross at crosswalks” and other helpful tips, they offer one last piece of counsel, just in case there was any remaining doubt that their campaign has little interest in tackling the root cause of injuries to people walking – dangerous behaviours by people driving.

Peel Regional Police are urging pedestrians to be extra vigilant. Keep in mind that just because you have the right of way doesn’t mean it is safe to utilize it.

Let that sink in for a second. Rather than running a campaign to encourage people driving to drive more attentively, to be extra careful of people walking and to always, as a default, yield the right of way to a more vulnerable road user, the police emphasize that, as someone who is not encased in a metal box, you need to be extra vigilant to protect yourself against those who would break the law and fail to yield the right of way, potentially endangering your life.

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Asking people walking to remove their earphones ignores the fact that even with earphones in, you still hear more than a person in a car with their windows up. Asking people to wear bright, reflective clothing ignores the fact that if a person driving can’t see a large object “until it’s too late”, then they’re arguably driving too fast for the light conditions or their own abilities. Asking people to cross at crosswalks ignores the fact that there are many “signal crossing deserts” in modern urban environments, where safe crosswalks may be separated by a kilometer or more.  All of these asks serve the same purpose – to absolve those driving and those who design the systems where rapid movement of cars are prioritized, of their responsibility to plan for the more vulnerable.  When you’re driving, speeding puts people at risk. Looking at your phone puts people at risk. Turning up the radio or fidgeting with your controls puts people at risk. If you drive at a speed that allows you to react and prevent a collision and you keep all of your attention on the task of driving, you’re planning for those more vulnerable – you’re doing what I didn’t do in the shopping mall example, watching constantly to make sure you don’t get involved in a collision with someone more vulnerable than yourself.

And when planners and engineers design roads for travel at 65-70km/h through residential areas, when they space safe crossings far apart, when they fail to provide sidewalks or bike lanes or off-road trails, they’re failing to plan for those more vulnerable populations as well.

One last point, before I offer my modified suggestions for pedestrian safety, and it’s an important one.

A lot of these requests make it seem like it’s hipsters looking down at their phones being injured or killed on the roads when they’re out walking.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  When you look at the data for who dies while walking all across Ontario, one group stands out as dramatically over-represented: Seniors.  Take a look at this map of pedestrian fatalities in Toronto in 2016: as of the writing of this post, 12 of the 15 deaths were people over 55 years old, with 10 of the deaths being people over 65 years old.  It’s not young, healthy people making poor choices being killed on the roads while walking – it’s predominantly grandparents and great grandparents moving slowly in dangerous areas.

So without further ado, I’ll present my #PedestrianSafety Tips:

When driving be sure to:

  • Constantly scan the roadway ahead, keeping a close eye for people walking. Especially in residential neighbourhoods, where children can be expected to be playing, keep your speed limited to 30km/h to maximize your response time and minimize the risk of death to people walking.
  • Maintain full attention on the task at hand.  Inattention and distraction is now the leading cause of collisions in Ontario, so focus on the road ahead.
  • Yield the right-of-way when required by law.  When in doubt, yield the right of way to people walking anyways. Their safety and ability to get home to their families is worth the extra few seconds of delay it may cause you.
  • If conditions are sub-optimal (rain, dark, snow etc), adjust your driving habits accordingly. Drive more slowly, and pay extra attention.

When walking be sure to:

  • Remain attentive while continuing to enjoy the most basic and human form of movement.
  • Identify areas where safe crossings are required and call your community’s traffic department, planning department and local councillors to let them know about the unsafe conditions.
  • Program your community’s local law enforcement’s non-emergency number into your phone and vigorously report any person driving who fails to yield the right of way.

Did I miss any tips? Send them to me on Twitter using the Hashtag #RealPedSafety!

 

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Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis – Part 3

Every good story needs a Denouement.  We’ve gone through the exposition (Part 1), the Crisis (Part 2) and now, dear readers, I present to you the final part of my “Our Streets Have an Identity Crisis” series.  This post focuses on solutions – ways that communities are reclaiming their public spaces, and the incredible things that can result when we think about our streets as more than simply a space for moving cars.

While visiting Toronto late in 2015, I stumbled across this sign:

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And it struck me: if we have to remind people to slow down when they’re driving immediately beside a public park that children play in, we may have created a problem.

This isn’t a street that’s particularly easy to speed on. It’s relatively narrow, there’s vehicles parked on the side basically at all times during the day, and there’s stop signs all along the length, yet speeding is still a problem. This is a case of the overarching condition of our infrastructure contributing to a cultural problem – one where the speed of those traveling through our communities takes precedence over the safety of those who live, work and play there. Streets like this one, which happen to be a linear, parallel route a couple of blocks away from a major thoroughfare, become used as shortcuts.  It’s commonly known as “rat-running“, and it usually results in a particular set of impatient, frustrated, high-speed people driving through residential communities.

When people treat residential streets as a shortcut, bypassing routes that are designed to accommodate higher volumes of traffic and have adjacent land uses that are more conducive to higher volumes and higher speeds, it creates friction – friction between the people who live on those streets and the people who are driving through them. The problem is that the people driving through those neighbourhoods don’t linger long enough to engage in a meaningful conversation – they’re gone in a flash, leaving the residents there to cope with the increased danger and decreased quality of life for their families and friends.

But all across North America, neighbourhoods are fighting back. From Speed Humps to area-wide traffic calming to turn restrictions on residential streets, communities are getting creative about how to slow traffic down.

In communities like Portland and Vancouver, Neighbourhood Greenways are making walking, cycling and playing in the street more comfortable by restricting access, ensuring that automotive traffic cannot move straight through an area using residential streets and installing significant traffic calming features.

On-street parking is maintained for those who live there, cut-through traffic is reduced and these streets become major thoroughfares for people cycling and walking. It’s really a win-win for everyone. Just look how beautiful they are:

Here in Ontario, Hamilton has done some great things with their North End Traffic Management Plan.  An entire community stood up and said “no more” to vehicles traveling at speeds in excess of 65km/h though their neighbourhood, and the results so far have been impressive, to say the least. Average speeds have gone down anywhere from 5-25%, bringing speeds down closer to 30km/h, and much more in-line with those compatible with a “life sized city”

 

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Photo via Copenhagenize

Where traffic moves slower, people are more comfortable walking or biking. They know their neighbours across the street as well as next door. Kids play ball hockey, basketball and street soccer, front yards are used as social space, and you see more people moving around their community, making connections with the people around them. I’ve been fortunate to live in areas like that, and I can assure you that it’s a wonderful way to live.

If this all sounds kind of utopian, I would suggest that it really wasn’t that long ago that the kind of traffic flow that we experience now was viewed as a dangerous, dystopian future. In 1923, over 40,000 residents of Cincinnati signed a petition demanding that cars be mechanically limited to 40km/h. The auto industry responded by blaming pedestrians, launching the great Jaywalking campaign to assert that roads were the exclusive domain of cars. For hundreds of years of civilization, streets were places for people. And in the span of a generation, the expectations had been switched.

I assert that the pendulum has swung too far. We’ve given up too much of our public space, our safety and our quality of life in our own neighbourhoods to facilitate the rapid movement of people driving through the places we live. It’s time to stop treating every strip of asphalt as a highway, and time to start thinking of our streets as a public space for everyone again.