The headline, as the City of Vancouver would like to see it, is that the streets are becoming safer for pedestrians because the city has spent $7-million on engineering improvements at 30 of its worst intersections.
By improvements, the city means better lighting, more left turn bays, and pedestrian countdown clocks.
The claim that streets are safer is statistical – it comes from the number of pedestrians killed by drivers in the seven years between 2005 and 2011. That number is trending downward with some spikes and valleys year to year.
Feel safer now? I don’t.
On average, about 11 people per year are killed by cars in Vancouver. Pedestrians account for more than half of all traffic fatalities.
The number of deaths, of course, doesn’t tell the whole story.
ICBC numbers show that in 2012 across the Lower Mainland about 1,700 pedestrians were injured after being hit by cars. That number is virtually unchanged since 2008.
I certainly appreciate the city’s efforts at trying to engineer a solution to the problem.
I’m a fan of countdown clocks, although I wonder how many pedestrians actually pay attention to them. I also wonder whether pedestrians aren’t tempted to cross late against the flashing red hand, because they know they have exactly 12 seconds to clear the intersection.
Left-hand turn bays are good, especially when combined with advance left-turn lights. Drivers may be less likely to make a dangerous left turn knowing that they’ll get a chance to do it safely the next time the light changes. There will always be those drivers who push it – the ones hitting the crosswalk just as pedestrians are stepping off the curb. I’m not going to advocate kicking car doors, but it sure would feel good.
As for lighting – bring it on; anything that gives us a better view of the intersection on those dark and wet Vancouver nights.
Vancouver’s director of transportation says the city is also working on reducing the conflicts between pedestrians crossing the street and drivers turning right.
Jerry Dobrovolny concedes though that there is only so much that can be done from a design perspective. Rather than laying blame at the feet of any one group – drivers, pedestrians or cyclists – he says human behaviour is most often the cause of accidents.
So what are we doing wrong?
Well, I’ll begin with not paying attention, being selfish, inconsiderate, distracted and making false assumptions that someone else will do the right thing.
I can offer no explanation for what happens to people when they get behind the wheel of a car. One minute, they’re a pedestrian running an errand, crossing the street taking their kid to school, trying not to get run over, and moments later, back behind the wheel, their experience as a pedestrian has become erased from their memory.
Nor can I explain why any pedestrian would think it’s a good idea to step out onto a roadway without looking both ways. I know, your mother told you this. But your mother had no way of predicting that you would have rubber speakers jammed into your ears and that you’d be watching season two of House of Cards while walking to work. Also, you’re dressed like a ninja.
In all of the numbers trotted out this week what was perhaps most compelling was Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson’s statement that the goal when it comes to the number of pedestrian deaths in this city isn’t 10, or nine, or five – it’s zero; that ultimately the goal is to prevent pedestrian deaths entirely.
This is a way of framing the issue that over the past two months has been embraced and championed by the mayors of New York City and San Francisco. The state of Nevada made the “Vision Zero” campaign the focus of an advertising blitz nine months ago. Rhode Island began its campaign in 2012. It’s catching on.
Is it actually possible to get to zero?
It could be, if car drivers looked at pedestrians differently and stopped treating them like the enemy or an inconvenience. The Nevada campaign reminds drivers that every pedestrian is important to someone. I know; we’re talking about a wholesale shift of attitude when we can’t even get people to stop texting and driving.
And pedestrians, well, think self-preservation. Be ready for the drivers who are going to treat you as less important or not even notice that you’re there.
Maybe a couple of years from now the mayor and chief of police could hold a news conference to say no one was run over and killed on the city streets for an entire 12-month period.
Now that would be a headline.
Follow me on Twitter: @cbcstephenquinn
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