Special Report: Walkable Streets

Pedestrian Dies after Collision on Cootes Drive

As long as we continue to deform our built environment to accommodate high-speed, high-volume automobile traffic, people will continue to die. It's really that simple.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 03, 2014

A pedestrian is dead after being struck by a vehicle on Cootes Drive between York Street and West Street.

The pedestrian, a 19-year-old man, was crossing Cootes Drive northbound in front of the McDonald's restaurant on Saturday, November 1 at 7:08 PM. A Honda Civic driving westbound on Cootes struck him and he was taken to hospital with life-threatening injuries.

He died on Sunday, November 2 at 1:30 PM, the city's 12th traffic fatality and 4th pedestrian fatality of 2014.

Hamilton Police ask any witnesses to contact Detective Constable Wes Wilson at 905-546-4753.

Cootes Unsafe by Design

Cootes Drive is a particularly problematic street for safety because it functions as a four-lane, 80 km/h highway as it runs along the Desjardins Canal between the western edge of McMaster University and downtown Dundas.

The design of Cootes inevitably creates a conflict between pedestrians emerging from an urban, walkable environment where it's safe to cross the street and drivers emerging from a highway environment where it's safe to drive at very high speed.

Regardless of who is found to be 'at fault' in this tragedy, the real culprit is the street itself, which is designed for fast driving in blithe disregard of its surroundings, which can reasonably be expected to contain people.

The posted speed limit on Cootes drops from 80 km/h to 50 km/h about 200 metres east of East Street North, or around 600 metres east of where the collision took place.

However, not much else about the street changes with the reduced speed limit. It continues to look and feel like a four-lane highway until York Road, where it finally reduces to a lane in each direction.

Speed Kills

A human body can reasonably withstand a collision with a hard metal object moving around 30 km/h or slower. As the speed of the hard metal object increases, the likelihood that a human body can survive collision drops exponentially toward zero.

At 32 km/h, a pedestrian has a 5 percent chance of dying in a collision. At 48 km/h, a pedestrian's risk of dying in a collision jumps to 45 percent. At 64 km/h, a pedestrian's risk of dying reaches a devastating 85 percent.

We can thank the laws of physics for this: the kinetic energy of a moving object increases as a square of its speed. In other words, a vehicle going twice as fast has four times as much kinetic energy, not just twice as much.

Not only is a pedestrian exponentially more likely to die in a collision as speed increases, but also the collision itself becomes exponentially more likely since the vehicle's stopping distance also increases as a square of its speed. In other words, a vehicle going twice as fast takes four times as far to stop.

We Know How to Change

It is possible for a city to reduce its traffic fatality rate toward zero. The City of Vancouver, for example, has committed to the goal of "zero traffic-related fatalities" through a series of changes that will sound familiar to anyone who has been paying attention: increasing the share of trips by walking, cycling and transit; reducing automobile speed limits to 30 km/h; using bumpouts and neckdowns to reduce dangerousu vehicle speeds; establishing more neighbourhood greenways that prioritize walking and cycling over cut-through driving; widening sidewalks and adding crosswalks; adjusting signals for longer pedestrian crossing times - do I need to go on?

Vancouver has already enjoyed some dramatic successes. Its rate of pedestrian fatalities is already among the lowest in Canada. It has only had one pedestrian fatality so far this year in a city of over 600,000, compared to four pedestrian fatalities so far in Hamilton, which has a smaller population.

More broadly, Vancouver has managed to increase its population density while reducing the number of vehicle trips, mainly through a series of land use and transportation policy choices that favour walkable, mixed-use development over automobile-dependent sprawl.

Vancouver refuses to widen streets to accommodate more single-occupant vehicle trips. Hamilton blocks new developments on streets that are already four and five lanes wide in case we might decide to widen them even further.

Vancouver invests heavily in high-quality transportation and rapid transit - including its famous Skytrain system, which Hamilton actually turned down three decades ago. Meanwhile, many of Hamilton's leaders are poised to turn down a fully-funded rapid transit system again, in a staggering refusal to learn the painful lessons of past bad decisions.

Time to Change

As long as we continue to deform our built environment to accommodate high-speed, high-volume automobile traffic, people will continue to die. It's really that simple. Hamilton is the second most dangerous city in Ontario for pedestrians, a predictable result given the fact that our city is riddled with streets designed for deadly automobile speeds.

Nine of the 15 successful candidates for Mayor and Council responded to our policy question asking if they support a Vision Zero initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities.

Mayor-elect Fred Eisenberger, Ward 1 Councillor-elect Aidan Johnson, Ward 2 Councillor Jason Farr, Ward 3 Councillor-elect Matthew Green, Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla, Ward 9 Counicllor-elect Doug Conley, Ward 10 Councillor Maria Pearson, Ward 12 Councillor Lloyd Ferguson and Ward 13 Councillor-elect Arlene Vanderbeek all submitted responses. Of the nine, Ferguson was non-committal and all the other candidates were supportive.

Pearson, who successfully ran for re-election in Ward 10, may have put it best: "Of course! Who would not support the elimination of pedestrian and cyclist deaths?"

Who, indeed. The question is: will this mayor and council have the policy understanding and political courage to implement the changes we know we need to make in order to achieve this goal?

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 Fake Name (anonymous) | Posted November 03, 2014 at 12:02:33

I assume the city's fix will be yet-another speed trap like they do at the other end of Cootes' instead of actually fixing the highway's obvious design problems at its endpoints. Police are perfectly happy to capitalize on our safety concerns by making a profit off of speeders. Every time I drive Cootes, I have to obsessively stare at the speedometer to remind myself of the speed limit.

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By Anon (anonymous) | Posted November 03, 2014 at 12:09:56

I suspect that Lloyd was non-committal at the city wide level and whole hog on board for his own ward.

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By jason (registered) | Posted November 03, 2014 at 13:08:38

Ferguson was non-committal eh? Should we post pics of chicanes, roundabouts, road diets to include bike lanes, nice sidewalks and less car lanes from Ancaster? What he means is "I'm not overly worried about people dying in the inner city. But in Ancaster? Zero is absolutely the goal".

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By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted November 03, 2014 at 14:44:13

I think thoughts (and prayers for those who pray) should be the top of the agenda for both the pedestrian's survivors and family, and the driver (who we are told is in complete shock) and his family.

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By slowdown (anonymous) | Posted November 03, 2014 at 15:29:28 in reply to Comment 105879

Part of my thoughts and prayers for the affected families is nobody else should have to go through this tragedy.

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By davidjenkins (registered) | Posted November 03, 2014 at 15:26:20

Keep in mind the Cootes Drive was Ontario Highway 102 by design. Over time there has been a "reverse" use attempt made to create it into a regular city road. Trouble is that no physical changes have been made other that to add stop lights at Olympic and again at Saunders.

One solution would be to narrow down to one lane each way at each end of this road. Between McMaster bridge and Main Street and at East Street where Cootes merges with King Street.

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By slowdown (anonymous) | Posted November 03, 2014 at 15:28:12 in reply to Comment 105880

These 'street used to be' arguments aren't persuasive to me. King St. through downtown Dundas is Ontario Highway 8, should we get rid of the meter parking and make it 4 lanes again?

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By DavidJenkins (registered) | Posted November 03, 2014 at 15:31:01

On Cootes Drive as you approach the McMaster Bridge from Dundas there is a radar speed reminder unit permanently installed at the bridge. It does little to slow traffic. The traffic lights at the Sanders Blv pedestrian crossing helps a little. Still a bad area for speed.

Comment edited by DavidJenkins on 2014-11-03 15:33:03

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted November 03, 2014 at 15:45:13 in reply to Comment 105883

On Cootes Drive as you approach the McMaster Bridge from Dundas there is a radar speed reminder unit permanently installed at the bridge. It does little to slow traffic. The traffic lights at the Sanders Blv pedestrian crossing helps a little. Still a bad area for speed.

Au contraire: it is a fabulous area for speed, with two wide lanes in each direction, open vistas, and a broad centre median. Which is precisely the problem.

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By DavidJenkins (registered) | Posted November 03, 2014 at 15:39:10

I mentioned Cootes Drive starting out as a highway because that is how it was designed. As times have changed Cootes is being treated by some as a regular city street and as a highway by others (drivers). The parking along King Street in downtown Dundas slows traffic. One useable lane each way. Cootes hammers two express style lanes into that. Narrow Cootes into one lane each way approaching East Street and keep it single lane to King.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted November 03, 2014 at 21:47:14

That area looks like it was designed by the roads department on crack. e.g Baldwin St. wtf? And then they haha got creative with names like West St, East St North... and let's make it twice as wide as it needs to be even though it feeds into narrow slow King St, what a riot you guys are!

The difference in speed limit 50 at both ends and 80 in the middle of Cootes just doesn't work. It's asking for velocitization. Road diet Cootes and in the mean time reduce the speed limit to 60-70 in the middle.

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By H1 (anonymous) | Posted November 04, 2014 at 13:21:20

Was the driver speeding? The incident took place in a 50Km/h zone. Reducing the speed from 80 to 50 would have made no difference in this case if the driver was doing the posted 50K limit.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted November 04, 2014 at 13:30:04 in reply to Comment 105909

You are right: the road design (multiple straight wide lanes, no distractions or obstacles) encourages people to drive at unsafe speeds for pedestrians no matter what the posted limit is. The road needs to be designed for the speed we want, and traffic engineers have a big toolkit now to achieve this (narrow lanes, reduced number of lanes, add parking, bumpouts, chicanes etc.).

The road design itself should send the signal to drivers: slow down, there are lots of things to watch out for here.

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By H1 (anonymous) | Posted November 04, 2014 at 13:52:11 in reply to Comment 105910

the initial investigation has shown the car was not travelling excessively and the driver, who was alone, was not impaired. redesigning the road would not make a difference in this case.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted November 04, 2014 at 14:47:26 in reply to Comment 105918

Other cities, like Vancouver and New York, are deliberately and successfully using street design changes to reduce the number of deaths and injuries.

http://www.nyc.gov/html/visionzero/pages...

"Traffic fatalities in New York have indeed fallen significantly, from 701 in 1990, to 381 in 2000, to an all-time low of 249 in 2011. The city has become nationally and internationally recognized as a leading innovator in safe street designs. At locations where the New York City Department of Transportation has made major engineering changes since 2005, fatalities have decreased by 34%, twice the rate of improvement at other locations. But it is still not enough. We can, and must, do better."

Or, they could have just decided to blame inattentive pedestrians and drivers and leave it at that.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-11-04 14:50:21

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 04, 2014 at 14:04:06 in reply to Comment 105918

A pedestrian struck by a car going the legal 50 km/h speed limit has about a 50 percent chance of dying. If the car is going 30 km/h, the chance of dying in a collision drops to just 5 percent and the collision itself is far likely to happen in the first palce.

This isn't about assigning blame. It's about a street design that reduces dangerous speeds so there are fewer and less severe collisions.

Cootes Drive is a dangerous street design. It's a four-lane thoroughfare running right into a built-up urban environment with lots of pedestrians. It's a tragedy just waiting to happen.

We can wait for inevitable collisions to happen and attempt to lay blame, or we can redesign the street so the collisions stop being inevitable.

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By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted November 05, 2014 at 18:48:09 in reply to Comment 105920

Do you think people on Cootes Drive should travel at 30 KM (18.6 miles) per hour?

Comment edited by notlloyd on 2014-11-05 18:49:23

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted November 05, 2014 at 19:18:32 in reply to Comment 105993

maybe not on the hill but inside downtown dundas? yes. what's the rush?

sure a few lives might be saved, but MILLIONS will be late!

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By notlloyd (registered) - website | Posted November 05, 2014 at 20:30:30 in reply to Comment 105995

Well, using that logic, a better question might be why don't pedestrians cross at the light? No one would die and no one would be late. But that is not the question. I didn't ask why. He already answered that part. Taken literally, Ryan's suggestion is that automobiles should be limited to 30KMPH or 18.6 mph. My question remains; should a roadway like Cootes be limited to that speed?

Comment edited by notlloyd on 2014-11-05 20:35:10

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By bikehounds (anonymous) | Posted November 05, 2014 at 20:50:52 in reply to Comment 105998

And I answered, yes, perhaps in town it should be. As opposed to the section on the hill which probably doesn't need to be restricted to 30 since it has a separated bike and pedestrian infrastructure and no destinations.

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By Lets rubber coat the sidewalks (anonymous) | Posted November 04, 2014 at 13:43:47

Too bad he didn't walk the short distance to the crosswalk at York rather than jaywalking, an unnecessary death and emotional trauma to the driver who hit him could have been avoided.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted November 04, 2014 at 21:22:25 in reply to Comment 105915

Shh. Hardcore RTH'ers don't like that kind of comment, regardless of the truth behind it. It's easier to just tear out the road, plant lots of flowers, or maybe just convert it into more bike lanes (even though there is one just a hair away that runs parallel to Cootes, and is even separated by a grassy median AND a tall fence) or just do away with all vehicular traffic.

Question: Would this have occurred if there was just an LRT running down the street?

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By me again (anonymous) | Posted November 05, 2014 at 14:11:04


Looking at it in Google Maps, I can see there is insufficient roadway lighting, which would have made it dangerous to cross the road.

Also, there is a channelized right turn to the west, which means drivers in the WB right lane will drive without expectation of a need to stop or slow down until they get to the channelization.

I certainly wouldn't try to cross that street at that location. There's too much there that I'd have to pay attention to, and no refuge at the median or illumination to protect me. Not trying to blame the pedestrian here, but that's a rather uncrossable road.

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By Dundasian born and raised (anonymous) | Posted December 04, 2014 at 11:50:50

I've lived and walked around Dundas my entire life. For those of you who don't know the area, there are crosswalks at almost every block. I feel like the real issue here is following the PEDESTRIAN RULES OF THE ROAD. These are things that we have been taught at a very young age. Why jaywalk across the road, at night, in a dimly lit area, when there is a cross walk steps away from where the incident happened. If these pedestrian rules are not followed, of course there are going to be more accidents involving vehicles and human bodies. Sure, lower the speed limit more, add speed bumps.. but if people who walk around this area don't also follow these rules, then all of this will be pointless. Even if the cars are going slower, and the chances of fatally are lower in the chance that pedestrian is hit, the bigger issue is PEDESTRIANS STILL RUN THE RISK OF GETTING HIT IF THEY TOO DONT FOLLOW THE RULES. I feel for the family who lost their son, absolutely. But I also know the driver of the car, who was not driving recklessly and will have to live with this accident for the rest of his life.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted December 04, 2014 at 12:05:50 in reply to Comment 106573

Here's the thing: if the goal is to reduce the incidence and severity of collision injuries, telling people to be more careful just doesn't work. What works is acknowledging that people make mistakes, and designing our public spaces so that mistakes are less likely to be fatal.

One way to do this is through Sweden's Vision Zero approach:

The Vision Zero is the Swedish approach to road safety thinking. It can be summarised in one sentence: No loss of life is acceptable. The Vision Zero approach has proven highly successful. It is based on the simple fact that we are human and make mistakes. The road system needs to keep us moving. But it must also be designed to protect us at every turn.

I believe you when you write that you feel for both the family of the pedestrian who was killed and for the driver of the car, who now has to live with what happened. No one should have to go through the trauma and tragedy of serious injury or death in a traffic collision.

And that is all the more reason to stop relying on the "train-and-blame" approach to safety, which doesn't work. What works is designing the system so that the predictable mistakes in judgment that go along with human nature don't leave people mangled, killed and traumatized.

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