Special Report: Walkable Streets

Stop Blaming Pedestrians for Dangerous Streets

When it is effectively impossible to walk safely from one address on a given street to the next address, there is something fundamentally wrong with the design of that street.

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 03, 2014

this article has been updated

The Spectator reports that a 66-year-old man was killed while walking at Rymal Road and Upper Centennial Parkway when he slipped on the ice and fell in front of a moving car.

Rymal and Upper Centennial are both classic stroads: great wide hulking multi-lane roads with fast 60 km/h speed limits, dedicated left- and right-turn lanes and no sidewalks anywhere; yet also nominally city streets, used to connect such urban destinations as restaurants, cafes, pubs, pet food stores, dentists, orthodontists, aestheticians, liquor stores, financial services, and so on, with homes close nearby.

When it is effectively impossible to walk safely from one address on a given street to the next address, there is something fundamentally wrong with the design of that street.

Sadly, I was not at all surprised to see typical victim-blaming on the part of Hamilton Police, who took the opportunity to warn, "I would ask any pedestrian to be mindful of road conditions, wear bright colours and proper shoes."

Apparently, if the pedestrian had been wearing fluorescent coveralls and Alpine hiking boots with attached steel cleats, he might have had a better chance at traversing the inhospitable tundra of packed ice flanking the road, in the zone where a more humane city might consider placing a sidewalk.

In his list of admonishments, did Staff Sergeant Jack Langhorn also call out the City of Hamilton for not supplying pedestrians with a safe place to walk between destinations on Rymal or Upper Centennial?

The police seem to have ruled out speeding, even though the laws of physics tell us that the kinetic energy of a moving object is proportionate to the square of its velocity and the evidence clearly indicates that the risk of pedestrian death increases exponentially as vehicle speed goes up.

If a vehicle is moving twice as fast, it has four times the kinetic energy. Using my car, a Honda Civic sedan with a curb weight of 1,179 kg, we can calculate:

The risk of pedestrian fatality goes from just 5% at 32 km/h to 85% at 64 km/h. So it is dangerous nonsense every time the police claim that speed is not a factor in a pedestrian death.

Of course, I know what they mean when they say this: not that the vehicle wasn't moving at a dangerously high speed, but rather that the dangerously high speed the vehicle was moving did not exceed the posted speed limit.

When will the Police stop admonishing the city's pedestrians for not being visible enough and start admonishing the city's politicians, engineers and planners for mandating street designs that guarantee deadly interactions between pedestrians - disproportionately senior citizens - and high-speed automobiles?

Hamilton is the second most dangerous city in Ontario for pedestrians. We are failing to keep our city safe for its most vulnerable residents.

It is not the fault of insufficiently colourful pedestrians. It is not even the fault of drivers, who are after all only following the rules that the city has made for them.

It is the predictable result of a long series of policy decisions mandating that we physically arrange our affairs in such a way that it is not just impractical but effectively impossible to get from one place to another safely without getting in a car.

Banning pedestrians, as the city has tried in more than one danger zone, is emphatically not the answer. The answer is not to push pedestrians off our dangerous streets but to make our streets less dangerous. Until we do that, our vulnerable road users will continue to pay the ultimate price.


Update: According to a news release by the Police, the pedestrian was killed when he slipped after stepping off the raised centre median while crossing Rymal northbound near the Vicar's Vice, a pub almost 300 m west of the intersection at Upper Centennial.

Some people will doubtless argue that he should have been crossing at the intersection rather than midblock, but we must make a few important observations:

To cross at the intersection, the pedestrian would have to walk 600 metres - more than half a kilometre - out of his way along the shoulder of a stroad with no sidewalks. Assuming a walking speed of 4 km/h, which is generous given the conditions, it would take him 9 minutes of extra walking to cross at the nearest intersection.

(After that, the next closest intersection is at Whitedeer Drive, which is over 600 metres in the other direction. That would require an outrageous 1.2 km detour, or 18 minutes at 4 km/h.)

The intersection itself has little to recommend it after the trouble of getting there. It is signalized but there are no crosswalk markings, and due to the huge turning radii at the corners, the crossing distance is significantly longer than it is at midblock.

In any case, there are no destinations at the intersection itself. The nearest buildings on the west side of Upper Centennial face away from the street and have huge setbacks, and the northeast corner is actually the wedge of a highway-style onramp from Hwy 20 westbound onto Upper Centennial northbound.

In other words, crossing illegally away from the intersection was clearly the most sensible and reasonable act in a built environment that is utterly negligent to his basic needs a pedestrian.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted February 03, 2014 at 09:28:19

It was virtually impossible to walk anywhere yesterday without using the roads in lieu of sidewalks. Even in the BIAs where the city clears the sidewalks, the sweepers left an inch of solid ice behind them. Meanwhile, the roads were largely dry and clear.

Lest we forget that every person enters and leaves the world a pedestrian, and every driver starts and finishes every trip a pedestrian.

The city's priorities are completely out of whack, and sadly, I think the only method which has a chance of waking them up is litigation.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 10:09:57

No roads in the city feel as dangerous to me as mountain roads. The push for complete streets will likely make its greatest impact in the suburbs, where stroads abound, where sidewalks are neglible and neglected, and where crosswalks (sans zebra crossings) are calibrated to the gait of twentysomethings. Seniors and those with mobility challenges are at a severe disadvantage at the best of times. And winter is not that.

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By Mountain (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 15:51:45 in reply to Comment 97349

"No roads in the city feel as dangerous to me as mountain roads."

I really dislike this generalization, which I see on RTH quite a bit about the Mountain. I live in the area between Concession and Quuensdale, near Upper Wentworth. I have never felt any road in my neighbourhood is dangerous. I bike, walk, shop on Concession for virtually everything I need, have my doctor and dentist on Concession, and am even getting bike lanes on Queensdale. My Mountain area is just as livable and walkable as any area of the lower city

Please stop generalizing all of the Mountain as the same. My experience is completely different than that of someone who lives out near Rymal in terms of walkability, pedestrian safety, and livability in general.

I get really tired of seeing backhanded slaps against the Mountain as a whole on here. I recall someone saying several months ago, in response to Olive and Kiwi opening up on Scenic Drive, that it was "like an oasis on the Mountain" - come on.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 20:48:00 in reply to Comment 97361

Apologies for the slight. I should have been more specific: From the vantage point of a pedestrian, no arterials in the city feel as desolate or dangerous to me as those located south of Fennell. (Note the "feel" and "me" – I mean for these to be understood as subjective valuations.)

FWIW, I lived for many years on the Mountain, but am still someone who believes that there is abundant appeal in Mountain communities, particularly those north of Fennell. The streets off Concession date to the 1930s and earlier, and the scale of those neighbourhoods is, IMHO, the legacy of a more humane age of development, before cars became ubiquitous.

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By Fred Street (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 21:33:29 in reply to Comment 97369

*It's not that the area south of Fennell is lacking in neighbourhood-level ap peal, just that its main streets tend not to have been designed with pedestrians/cyclists in mind, a choice that has not been without consequence.

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By Mountain (anonymous) | Posted February 04, 2014 at 20:47:40 in reply to Comment 97370

Thanks for the clarification. The Concession area is such a great neighbourhood. Last I heard, Concession is to be re-constructed in 2015- I can only hope we get some bike lanes (although not holding my breath).

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 05, 2014 at 11:18:39 in reply to Comment 97381

That sounds great - I was sad to see Concession go the way of payday-loan shops and boarded up buildings back when I was in highschool. Anybody remember Bayshore Hobbies' location up there with the bank of pay-per-minute Playstations? Sad that didn't pan out.

Looks like these days it's become an extension of Juravinski, which is better but still not exactly a vibrant community.

Concession really is the old "Downtown North Mountain", and has gone the way of most downtowns.

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2014-02-05 11:19:08

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 05, 2014 at 11:21:48 in reply to Comment 97390

Concession really is the old "Downtown North Mountain", and has gone the way of most downtowns.

I've been thinking for a few years now that inner-ring suburbs are a wave behind downtowns in the long cycle of decline and revitalization. Now is probably the right time to start thinking about how to avoid the bottoming-out in the north-central mountain and skip straight to the revival.

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted February 05, 2014 at 10:26:46 in reply to Comment 97381

Really? I hope they get rid of the stupid ramps at the top of jolley. It's a pedestrian nightmare.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 05, 2014 at 07:08:19 in reply to Comment 97381

Start bugging Councillor Duvall and Jackson about it now, and encourage your friends and neighbours to do the same. Heck, write an article for RTH explaining how and why bike lanes should be added on Concession and I'll be happy to publish it!

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 23:42:38 in reply to Comment 97370

On Mohawk Road you can't even pull your vehicle out of your driveway without receiving horn blasts if you're not done before the wave catches up. They're fast streets those mountain arterials.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted February 03, 2014 at 17:16:59 in reply to Comment 97361

You're quite right, insofar as parts of the Mountain - especially as you go north and east-central - have a built form more in keeping with the lower city than, say, south of Mohawk. The Escarpment is a highly visible delineation between the upper and lower city, but it is a poor proxy for the much fuzzier delineation between more-or-less urban prewar city building and suburban postwar city building.

Indeed, each new iteration of the suburban model since the 1950s has been more pure a distillation of suburban thinking than the one before, as such remnants of urban form as sidewalks, street trees, mixed uses, walking routes and so on have been stripped away to make more and more room for cars and only cars. Each new arterial has been wider, each new corner radius larger, each new off-street parking lot deeper, each new subdivision more labyrinthine, as the formula has been applied ever-more absolutely.

But you're entirely correct in pointing out that the line is temporal rather than geographic, and we do the discussion a disservice by conflating the Escarpment with the shift in thinking that began to gather steam after the 1940s and has now, finally, thankfully, begun to run its course.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2014-02-04 06:15:36

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By Mountain (anonymous) | Posted February 04, 2014 at 20:52:01 in reply to Comment 97364

Thanks Ryan. I just wanted to say as well that you wrote a great column for The Spec. I think a lot of Mountain folks would be well served to read that end to end. Like you said - when the urban core of a city thrives, we all win.

Wanted to point you in the direction of the latest facepalm today, though - a project that will actually increase density on the Mountain is being delayed by 'neighbourhood concerns' - oy. Can't post the link, but it was just posted on the Spec site: "Traffic concerns defer condo vote".

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 03, 2014 at 12:51:55

If it's too expensive to build sidewalks in an area, then it's too expensive to develop. Either the city is charging the developers insufficient development fees, or they're frittering the money away, or they should have blocked these construction projects and told the developers to go somewhere that already had water and sidewalks.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 15:47:28 in reply to Comment 97352

Or they could save some money but trimming their 5-lane roadways down to 3, and add wide sidewalks everywhere with a tree-planting boulevard next to the roadway.

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By Keith (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 13:00:29 in reply to Comment 97352

As per the Planning Act, cities can't charge the full cost of sidewalks to developers.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted February 03, 2014 at 13:09:04 in reply to Comment 97353

I don't mean that sidewalks should be a separate line-item on the development fees, just that the development fees in these low-density areas may be too low in general if the city can't cover expenses like sidewalks.

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By jason (registered) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 20:17:05 in reply to Comment 97356

agree 100%. Tax generation is way too low as well. Higher densities and mixed-uses in new developments will start to benefit the city instead of hurting it.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 14:53:34

There should be WAY more courtesy crossings than exist. You're NOT going to space traffic lights a kilometer apart and have people obeying them.

The city warned that it's running out of salt, and the winter is continuing unabated. Surfaces are likely to be less treated for the remainder of the winter - more sand, less salt, and more side streets will go without.

Be very careful, our roads are as forgiving as railway tracks. A huge metal projectile will sever your body parts if you intrude into live lanes. Which you have to do if you want to cross the street. With polished ice sidewalks beside them.

So remember folks, living in your neighborhood requires the same safety precautions as working in Stelco or National Steelcar. Vehicles cannot be expected to stop, slow down, or even brake. High visibility vests, steel toe boots, crash helmets, a 10 foot tall high visibility flag, are highly recommended if visiting the variety store for milk. Children should not be allowed outside, only driven to designated recreation shelters. Don't forget that tobogganing is prohibited in this city.

Okay, above hyperbole aside ... at least the police are honest in that we've chosen to build in a manner that places us responsible for our own safety. If you make a mistake, you die. Mountain goats don't get a second chance if they slip and fall off a cliff. We city build the same.

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By KevinH (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 16:03:55

It wasn't any of the above. The developers fronting on Rymal Rd would have paid their proportionate share of the urbanization of the road at the time of development, however the City has chosen to wait indefinitely to complete the work within the right-of-way. It's been on their radar since 2006 however for whatever reason the City continues to delay complete reconstruction and has chosen to piecemeal it bit by bit as required between Dartnell Rd and Hwy 20.

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By KevinH (anonymous) | Posted February 03, 2014 at 16:18:22 in reply to Comment 97362

Sorry, that should have been in reply to Pxtl's first comment.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted February 04, 2014 at 14:43:54

Just want to share a minor and momentary incident this morning, but very much on topic.

Biking up Dundurn this morning, a woman with a cane was walking in the right lane ahead of me, and looked like she was going to step out in front of me. But it didn't look like she was crossing - she was only a step from the crosswalk, but standing in the lane looking confused.

The color of her cane, plus what looked to me like a confused expression, prompted me to stop. For a second it looked like a blind person had wandered into the roadway, so my reflexes reacted as such.

So, being on a bicycle, I was able to stop on a dime and ask if she was alright and if she was aware she was walking in the roadway; would have been trivial to assist and get her back on the sidewalk. She responded and everything was fine, so there was nothing left to do but carry on.

During this 10 seconds of a simple, inconsequential act of making sure a vulnerable pedestrian wasn't disoriented in traffic, the car behind me decided to ... guess what? Lay on the horn!

Yes folks, the neanderthal in the chariot behind me, did the only thing those primitives know how to do, when faced with an unexpected situation on the road. Get angry and honk that humans have unexpected issues sometimes and a 'safety stop' is required from a driver as a courtesy. I wish I had a photo of the vehicle to post here for public shaming.

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By Cultosaurus (registered) | Posted February 04, 2014 at 17:20:50 in reply to Comment 97375

In general, I find the drivers in Hamilton are way too quick to honk and often for ridiculous reasons. It amazes me the level of impatience, especially considering the vast amount of road capacity and overall high rate of speed afforded to Hamilton drivers. My best guess is it is the frustration caused by people heading to or coming from their eventual epic commute - maybe they just don't know how good they have it compared to the GTA.

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By Cory (anonymous) | Posted February 04, 2014 at 17:29:02

I did a quick search to understand how many pedestrians are killed each year by vehicles and found the following information from Toronto.

In 2007 a study was completed reviewing the number of pedestrian fatalities due to pedestrian/motor vehicle collisions. Over the 2002/2003 period there were 92 fatalities in Toronto. That’s roughly 1 death every 8 days.

It seems that there are strong vehicle centric cultural influences that impact this issue. If the statistics in Hamilton are of a similar scale perhaps there is a way to better highlight this issue here and work towards changing the perceptions that seem to be hindering progress.

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