Special Report: Walkable Streets

Vancouver Commits to Zero Traffic Fatalities While Hamilton Stonewalls Even Modest Safety Improvements

Vancouver's impressive pedestrian safety statistics are not some random effect, but the result of several deliberate policies sustained since 1997 and continued to this day.

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published September 30, 2014

The Globe and Mail has a great essay on the dangers of walking in Toronto.

Last week, a woman was killed as she attempted to cross the street at a crosswalk. An elderly man was killed by a streetcar a few days before that. On Labour Day weekend, three people were hit, one fatally, two seriously wounded. The number of pedestrians killed by vehicles in Toronto in 2014 now stands at 19; last year the number was 40, the highest it has been a decade.

Meanwhile, Vancouver has just reported its lowest rate of pedestrian fatalities in 80 years; only one person killed this year (the city has an official goal of zero fatalities per year). I'm a Torontonian born and bred, so I'm loath to acknowledge Vancouver's superiority in any way, but I'd be willing to put on a hair shirt - or perhaps Gore-Tex so I'll fit in - and find out what that city is doing right.

Vancouver's impressive pedestrian safety statistics are not some random effect, but the result of several deliberate policies sustained since 1997 and continued to this day.

Goal: Zero Traffic Fatalities

In October 2012, Vancouver Council approved their Transportation Plan 2040, a long-term strategic vision with some impressive targets. They want to boost the share of walking, biking and transit from the current 44 percent of all trips to two-thirds by 2040.

They also want to eliminate traffic fatalities: "Our goal is to move toward zero traffic-related fatalities." The plan notes that pedestrians are involved in only one percent of traffic collisions but represent 45 percent of traffic fatalities.

Their strategy to do that involves a number of steps that will be familiar to RTH readers: reducing speed limits to 30 km/h, widening sidewalks, adding bumpouts at intersections, elevating crosswalks, adjusting signals for longer pedestrian crossing times and so on.

Why in Hamilton (and Toronto) do we continue to think that traffic deaths and injuries are some sort of fact of nature? Why is the most common remedy to simply exhort everyone to "be more careful"?

Cities like Vancouver have shown that traffic deaths are not inevitable and have demonstrated how to bring them down by a combination of good urban design, improved street design and changed attitudes toward walking as valued form of getting around.

Streets Designed for Dangerous Speeding

Here in Hamilton, we have designed many of our streets in ways that are proven to be dangerous: multi-lane one-way streets engineered for speeds much higher than the legal limit, wide turning radii, few crosswalks, timed lights and freeway-style roadway designs.

Five one-way lanes on Main Street running right across the city through the downtown core (RTH file photo)
Five one-way lanes on Main Street running right across the city through the downtown core (RTH file photo)

Wellington Street North during afternoon rush hour (RTH file photo)
Wellington Street North during afternoon rush hour (RTH file photo)

Birch Avenue, overbuilt legacy of an industrial past (RTH file photo)
Birch Avenue, overbuilt legacy of an industrial past (RTH file photo)

Vehicle clocked going 56 km/h on Herkimer past Dundurn Park (RTH file photo)
Vehicle clocked going 56 km/h on Herkimer past Dundurn Park (RTH file photo)

The predictable result is that we have the second-worst pedestrian safety record in Ontario.

Streets that are designed for dangerously high speeds will generate dangerously high speeds, as we keep seeing over and over again.

September 2014 collision on Wilson Steet near Steven Street (Image Credit: Joey Coleman)
September 2014 collision on Wilson Steet near Steven Street (Image Credit: Joey Coleman)

Smashed car after a July 2014 crash on Main Street near Victoria (Image Credit: Joey Coleman)
Smashed car after a July 2014 crash on Main Street near Victoria (Image Credit: Joey Coleman)

I have urged us to "recall our streets" in the same way that automakers are forced to recall dangerous vehicles. Vancouver has been gradually and consistently recalling its streets since the 1990s while we have merely tinkered around the edges of our dangerous streets.

Decades of Stonewalling

Residents' demands for change are met with stonewalling, parochial excuses and passive-aggressive installations.

For years, staff would not install a crosswalk on Hunter at MacNab, as requested over many years by the Durand Neighbourhood Association and other residents.

When residents were finally able to organize and vote to allocate scarce money to install the crosswalk, it was deliberately mis-programmed to act as a synchronized traffic light instead of the requested pedestrian activated light.

The justification was a desire not to confuse Hamilton motorists who are not used to stopping for pedestrians or at "unexpected" red lights.

In Hamilton, pedestrians are still too often treated as annoyances to motorists, who cannot really be blamed for ignoring traffic signals or driving dangerously since the streets encourage free flowing high speed traffic and minimize "distractions".

Unlike in Vancouver, our traffic engineers do not regard changing behaviour through improved design as a viable option.

Vancouver's Transportation Plan states: "One fatality is one too many." How many fatalities in Hamilton are too many?

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.

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By ideas (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 10:58:41

Enough already. We've known this for years. What can we do to accelerate the change? We need to apply real pressure as clearly creating awareness via dozens of articles like this is not enough. Can we mobilize/ demonstrate/ do a sit-in or something???

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By jeff (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 11:10:49

The justification was a desire not to confuse Hamilton motorists who are not used to stopping for pedestrians or at "unexpected" red lights.

According to the previous piece, part of the justification Public Works used was pedestrian safety, which I take on its face. The issue, as you argue, is it's clearly not enough and not part of a holistic approach to making our streets safer.

It's ironic and a bit absurd that the city is claiming safety concerns to not do something, yet the idea of doing something for safety concerns is antithetical.

I see people all the time – seniors, kids, parents with strollers - darting across city streets with drivers going well above posted speed limits (without a cop anywhere to be found) because there aren't enough crosswalks or other traffic-calming measures. Unsafe.

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By jason (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 11:54:52

Zero pedestrian deaths??? I'd be happy for Hamilton to stop designing streets with provisions made for everyone to safely run red lights.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 12:24:50

The one that constantly astonishes me is the complete inaction on the Durand/Kirkendall 1-way grid. Nobody wants this, and it would not be unreasonably expensive to change it. And yet the city does nothing about it.

Converting King, Main, and Cannon would be a hard political battle, but Herkimer? Who the heck is begging for Herkimer to stay 1-way?

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 13:11:37 in reply to Comment 105002

People who live on the West Mountain and work at St. Joe's. The complaining I heard at work when the Queen St Mountain access was shut down...

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 13:57:57 in reply to Comment 105006

Those folks would be driving on Herkimer for all of six blocks. I mean yeah, they'd complain anyways because that's just what people do, but it's ludicrous to make a one-way-grid in the area for six blocks.

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 16:23:04 in reply to Comment 105009

"they'd complain anyways because that's just what people do" Well everyone complains here full time, don't they?

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By John Neary (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 14:54:53 in reply to Comment 105009

Just in case it's not clear: this was a statement of "is", not "ought"

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By StephenBarath (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 14:16:09 in reply to Comment 105009

Other West Mountain residents use the Queen Street hill and either Aberdeen or Charlton as an alternative to driving south from their homes to the Linc, and around the city. They take Charlton extremely quickly all the way west, then north to the 403, or to King to continue across to McMaster or other jobs. I’m sure that it’s these people who want to maintain Herkimer and Charlton as one-ways.

Would making Herkimer two-way result in a loss of street parking? In that case, I would expect some people to oppose it for that reason.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 17:02:48 in reply to Comment 105012

And those would be the people who are employees of the hospital that expect residents to give up all of their on street parking so they can park for free......for their entire 12 hour shift.........

It's a through street - the residents have an property parking.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 15:15:26 in reply to Comment 105012

Assume we would only convert regions of Durand/Kirkendall where the conversion would require no loss of street-side parking. That would still include most of the neighborhood, especially wide streets like Herkimer and Charlton.

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By Stephen Barath (anonymous) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 17:14:05 in reply to Comment 105014

Not to say that some streets shouldn't be made two-way even if it does mean street parking spots are lost. Through much of Kirkendall, Herkimer has street parking on both sides, so it seems that some would be lost.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 17:44:47 in reply to Comment 105028

Only in Kirkendall, it's plenty wide-enough for 2-way traffic with two parking lanes in Durand. Even then, there are parts of Westdale North with similarly narrow streets and both-side-parking that aren't one-way.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 14:09:56 in reply to Comment 105009

Not to mention that a clear majority of Hamiltonians supported converting secondary streets to two-way in a December 2012 survey by that anti-car activist group, CAA South Central Ontario.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2014-09-30 14:10:19

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 13:01:12

thirtytozero.ca ... Still keeping this warm in case any such initiative here materializes. Nobody can start such a campaign alone though ... and I don't even know where to begin. Asking people to slow down and drive carefully inside a city feels analogous to trying to introducing human rights concepts to medieval era warlords.

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By CharlesBall (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 16:26:42 in reply to Comment 105005

Why stop at thirty - why not 20 or 10. Or better yet no cars.

In medieval times, the few ruled and harmed the masses. Here, the masses rule and harm the few. I highly doubt that vast majority of people who drive would ever agree to a lower limit and, besides, there are ample studies that show that traffic flows at the speed of comfort.

So, as Ryan has repeatedly said, the answer is in road design - not law.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 17:12:26 in reply to Comment 105021

Why stop at thirty

Because physics. The kinetic energy of a moving object is an exponential function of its mass and speed. At 30 km/h, a vehicle has just a 5 percent chance of killing a pedestrian in the case of a collision. At 50 km/h the fatality risk jumps to 50 percent. Not only that, but stopping distance is also an exponential function, so a slower moving vehicle is less likely to collide with a pedestrian in the first place.

But of course it's easier to shadow-box a strawman than engage with inconvenient facts.

there are ample studies that show that traffic flows at the speed of comfort.

Yes, which is why we continue to advocate changing street design to make dangerous vehicle speeds less common.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 17:07:27

Why stop at thirty - why not 20 or 10. Or better yet no cars.

Because dichotomous absolutist hyperbole is neither the purpose nor the goal. Implementing good modern standards of calming and multi-modal road building inside inner cities, with a view to reducing/mitigating injuries and improving comfort and quality of life, is the goal. That said, if an entire car free neighborhood came into existence, I think it'd be so popular, I'd quickly be priced out.

doubt that vast majority of people who drive would ever agree to a lower limit

I agree completely.

the answer is in road design

I agree completely, I think everyone here realizes that is where the best results will come from.

In medieval times, the few ruled and harmed the masses.

The analogy was quick and off the top of my head. It is a bit imprecise, you're right. Perhaps the analogy would be closer to trying to teach medieval masses modern science. That would probably go very well, you definitely wouldn't be burned in the town square. :p

Comment edited by mikeonthemountain on 2014-09-30 17:09:22

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By Mark-AlanWhittle (registered) - website | Posted September 30, 2014 at 17:26:22

How many pedestrians were killed by cars in Hamilton in 2013 compared to 2014? Better to know the Hamilton stats, than using someone elses.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted September 30, 2014 at 17:51:22 in reply to Comment 105029

I have referenced the city's traffic safety report in this comment:

http://raisethehammer.org/comment/94375

and this article:

http://raisethehammer.org/blog/2805/hami...

"Hamilton pedestrians are as much as 42 per cent more likely to be injured compared to the Ontario rate. The risk to cyclists can be as much as 81 per cent higher than the provincial average."

"There were an average of 269 pedestrian injuries and fatalities per year from 1991-2010 and an average of about 6 pedestrian fatalities per year."

and a summary data from the SPRC report is given here:

http://infogr.am/sprc-hamiltons-risky-ro...

I don't have the data for 2013, but Hamilton Police Services reported that there have already been 8 fatalities in 2014 as of September 9: http://www.hamiltonpolice.on.ca/HPS/News...

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