This past week, an Edmonton based organization called Reboot Whyte published scathing data on what is arguably the city’s premier cultural, retail and walking street. On Whyte Avenue, a 3km stretch, 205 people who were walking or cycling were injured or killed by motor vehicle traffic. To put this another way, every month on average almost 2 people are killed or seriously injured. This is on just one street in Edmonton, not to mention one of Edmonton’s premier and attractive retail streets. A pedestrian count in 2013 shows there are up to 5789 people per hour crossing Whyte Ave (measured at four intersections). Everyone at some point has to walk, therefore we are certainly doing something wrong when people that live, work and play on one of Edmonton’s top retail streets cannot do so safely.
Responses and comments online were similar to other articles that write about the death of vulnerable road users – victim blaming is a common narrative. A simple thing like walking to the store to get some groceries, shouldn’t mean that someone has to put their life at risk. That something as mundane as a person’s travel choice bears such significant consequences (that many online scoff at) speaks volume to the transportation bias in our society. These types of social responses speak to how readily-accepted the automobile as the predominant choice for getting around is in our society. If something else like a murdering maniac or contaminated water was injuring or killing an average of 2 people monthly, we would without a doubt mobilize to change or rectify the threat.
To demonstrate how normalized victim-blaming culture is in North American society, consider the case of Raquel Nelson. The Georgia mother was charged with manslaugther for jaywalking with her children. Raquel chose to cross the street unofficially rather than walk 500 meters (2-5 blocks) to the nearest official crosswalk. In her case, the simple act of crossing the street with her children, led to her son’s untimely tragic death. The driver, Jerry Guy, who had been drinking earlier in the day while taking pain medication, was partially blind and had two previous hit-and-run convictions from 1997, records show. Yet, the mother was blamed for the tragedy.
This victim-blaming narrative is all too common in our communities. The victims, presented by Reboot Whyte, may seem like a number or a statistic, but really they are someone’s brother, sister, parent, husband, wife, partner, etc. No one should be killed while walking to a store to pick up groceries, just because someone else is in a hurry or not paying attention.
We all have a right to safely use and access what is ultimately a public right of way. Property taxes (not the gas tax) pay for the main chunk of road infrastructure. The idea that someone with more horsepower is more entitled to what is ultimately a public asset, is an affront to something we should all be entitled to – safe and secure mobility.
These types of comments and this narrative isn’t Edmonton-specific. Internet comments across North America are full of the same types of slander and victim-blaming.
Dangerous By Design
It can help to require more comprehensive driver’s education and change our laws to hold people driving accountable for the damage they cause. Ultimately however, at least in Edmonton Whyte Avenue’s case, it boils down to a question of space and design. We need to stop using “soft” behaviour recommendations like speed limits or “Watch for Pedestrians” signs and hope that people driving will follow them. Speed is the main factor for the severity of vehicular collisions with people. The design of Whyte Avenue allows these collisions to occur in the first place by allowing drivers to drive at unsafe speeds. Wide streets, are more forgiving to driver’s errors as they provide more room in case a vehicle loses control. For example, someone driving may swerve to avoid being delayed by a left turning car and might hit someone in a crosswalk. Thinner streets do not permit this type of dangerous behaviour as driver’s cannot swerve into 1 of 3 travel lanes.
For far too long we have accepted transportation related deaths as a necessary cost of mobility. This is quite absurd, and engineers and planners have a moral obligation to ensure that their designs are not putting people’s lives at risk. Study after study show that the only way to truly slow down traffic is with hard, physical designs that force the driving behaviors you want.
The priority should not be about trying to get vehicles through quickly but rather about tolerating access for vehicles, although slowly. Whyte Avenue is a stroad, where highway geometry and dimensions are applied to a fine grain retail street. With this design everyone loses: the wide lanes allow drivers to frustratingly reach high top speeds but cannot get through quickly. For people walking or cycling, the wide crossing distances make it unsafe.
The Road Diet
A clear, proven solution that can work is a Road Diet. For those unfamiliar, a road diet is when a wide street is reduced in an effort to achieve a desired effect like reductions in speeds and injuries, or to give an alternative modes like cycling equal access. In a previous post, Slow Streets wrote about the need for a protected bike lane on Whyte Avenue which could come from a road diet.
Jeff Speck provides 4 wonderful examples of how road diets work.
Road diets deliver results. A comprehensive study of 460 road diets found that road diets can see a 29% reduction in collisions. Recently, in Seattle, WalkingSeattle.org, crunched the numbers on Seattle’s 34 road diets and found significant reductions in injuries, speeding, collisions and traffic injuries, with minimal or no impact on travel volumes and time. This corroborates Slow Streets research in Vancouver where wider streets were associated with higher rates of collisions between vehicles and people walking and cycling.
It is time to start showing that people’s lives matter more than the need to get somewhere one minute earlier, regardless of how they get around. The design of our streets should reflect the safety needs of all road users, regardless of how they travel.