Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Thursday Noon: Walk like my life depends on it!

Tomorrow, the City is holding a "pedestrian safety campaign" called "Walk like your life depends on it" at 12:30pm at Lisgar and Elgin.

In other words, all you poor pedestrians should be careful out there with those big bad cars out there. You'd best be staying out of their way.

As this is part of the Integrated Road Safety Program, "promote pedestrian safety practises" likely means they'll be giving out tickets to pedestrians for jay-walking over the next month.


Not on my turf.

I jay-walk, and proudly so. Even though, I live in a pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood, the pedestrian network is set up in an awkward, ugly grid. I walk up and down Elgin Street every day, and no matter what pace I walk at, I always arrive at the next light when I'm not "supposed to" cross.

So I cross anyway.

If there is no traffic coming, I'm not going to stand and wait just because a little white man isn't telling me to. [Ever notice that it's a white man that says "go" but a coloured hand that says "stop"?]

I also cross mid-block. On Elgin street this is ideal because the lights at both ends of the block are usually red at the same time, so any cars within the block are stationary.

And surprise, surprise, when I once took a taxi, it didn't have to stop for a single light the entire way up Elgin. Talk about transportation planning priorities.

So a few of us pedestrian advocates are going to "crash" tomorrow's party.

You want to make roads safer for pedestrians?
  • Make crossing times long enough for seniors to cross

  • Set walk signals to go on every light cycle, not just on request

  • Get the light to change immediately at pedestrian crosswalks, not when the light feels like changing

  • Let people cross when there's no traffic

  • Build crosswalks where we need them, like at King Edward and Cathcart

Elsewhere, if a motorist hits a pedestrian or cyclist, they're automatically at fault because they were in charge of the big, fast-moving vehicle. Here in Ottawa, if the pedestrian is too dead to testify against the motorist, the driver usually gets off scot-free. When there are charges, it's usually a minor traffic violation.

Heck, we're ticketing pedestrians for walking in the path of inattentive drivers! What are the police doing about inattentive drivers?

The law was recently changed in Ontario to ban people from using cell phones and other similar devices while driving. Why aren't the Police enforcing this law? Attentive drivers would make the streets safer for pedestrians.

There are plenty of other dangerous--and illegal--ways motorists endanger pedestrians, which are only enforced when someone gets hurt. That is much too late.

You want to encourage people to walk and bike? You want to help me walk safely in my neighbourhood? Drive like MY life depends on it.

Remember, the outside of your car doesn't have airbags.

- RG>


Ed R said...

@ Charles A-M - I'm curious about the disconnect between your statement that "I jay-walk, and proudly so... no matter what pace I walk at, I always arrive at the next light when I'm not 'supposed to' cross. So I cross anyway", and your outrage that police aren't targeting drivers who break rules.

Why should the police enforce some traffic rules, but not others? Should cars by allowed to go through red lights if they check to make sure no one else is coming? If not, why?

Charles A-M said...

Hi Ed,

It's not a disconnect, but I understand how you can see it that way. You're interpreting my comments as a black-and-white issue about breaking and following laws. If all laws were perfect, we wouldn't need legislatures to change them. If all laws were enforced, we'd all be in jail. But it's not about whether the laws are right or wrong, it's about how your actions affect your safety, and how they affect the safety of others.

Motor vehicles are inherently intimidating to more vulnerable road users like cyclists, pedestrians, seniors, etc. Reinforced by the North American car culture, many motorists assume that because they have the bigger vehicle that they should have the right of way, even if the law says there are certain situations where they don't, and even if they've received a license from the government to operate a vehicle on the basis that they don't in those situations. It can be terrifying to be on the weak end of such intimidation, even when the law is on your side.

By contrast, in many parts of Europe, motorists are VERY attentive to cyclists and pedestrians, because they are automatically deemed at fault if they hit one. If a road is too narrow to pass a cyclist, motorists will line up behind the cyclist until it is safe to pass. Over here, motorists will honk, yell, and squeeze the cyclist--off the road if necessary--in order to get past.

This campaign by the police and the city not only recognizes, but also reinforces this concept that it's the pedestrians who must get out of the motorists' way, on threat of death. It's like saying that if you get hit, it's your fault and you deserve it for threatening to inconvenience a motorist.

Let's look at the whole reason we have traffic signals in the first place. If there were no signals, traffic on main streets would likely be a continuous stream, rarely allowing cross traffic (both pedestrian and vehicle), largely because the bigger and faster vehicles have a more natural dominance. In short, chaos. So we have signals to break up these streams to give an opportunity to people to cross. Traffic signals mediate these conflicts. But they also "mediate" when there are no conflicts.

I used to only cross at crosswalks and only when the signals permitted, even when no traffic was in sight. At least a couple of years I did this, in order to obey the law. I eventually realized how foolish it really was to do so.

I still obey all laws when operating a vehicle, including on my bicycle. This is because I have a responsibility as a vehicle operator to drive safely. But I feel quite foolish in the middle of the night when there's nobody in sight and I'm stuck at a red, forced by nothing but my own masochistic discipline.

For motorists at red lights, it's a more touchy subject because it's a larger vehicle, and the encasement of the vehicle and being set further back from the front of the vehicle makes it harder to see and hear traffic in the other direction.


Charles A-M said...

(continued from previous comment)

Still, I lament the waste of energy that results from cars waiting unnecessarily at red lights. I lobbied the City to turn the red lights along Bank Street into stop signs during the construction, as it's insane that they should stop when there's no crossing traffic (the best the City could do was give highest priority to East-West, and accept that people will jay-walk).

The contrasting example to this is the "Naked Streets" or "Shared Space" movement, which is growing in popularity in Europe. It wouldn't work for all of Ottawa, but for high pedestrian zones like in downtown it would reduce "unnecessary mitigation." In essence, it changes the driving culture from one of "you only have to stop if a sign or light tells you to" to one of "pay attention to the road context and drive accordingly. If you hurt someone, you're in trouble." See also the article "Distracting Miss Daisy" in the Atlantic, which David Reevely linked to in his blog last spring.

To wrap up and get back to your first question, "why should the police enforce some traffic rules, but not others," the problem is that this goes both ways. We can agree that they're not enforcing all rules. So since they're enforcing some (i.e. not all) rules, which ones do they choose to enforce?

What we are likely to see is that police will be ticketing pedestrians NOT when the pedestrian crosses dangerously/inattentively, but when it's easiest to ticket them--which can be when the jaywalking poses no risk to themselves or others. This will be a short-period blitz that will piss off a lot of people, and won't be broad enough to have any significant effect on people's behaviour. It earn some ticket revenue, which will be more than compensated by the cost of having those cops out there.

By contrast, if the some laws that they focus on are driver inattention, these do much more not only to protect the motorists from collision, but also from the people they hit with their car. How many motorists died from hitting pedestrians? The natural incentive on the pedestrian to avoid car-ped collisions is much stronger, and the damage much worse.

It's my opinion that, if you want to focus on SOME laws regarding pedestrian safety, focus on the ones that balance out the incentive. Focus on the ones that make the streets safer for everybody. Walking shoes never killed anybody, while thousands die each year from motor vehicle collisions.

Sorry for the long response, hopefully you can find an answer to your question in there. It's a very complex philosophical issue with real-world implications. Ask some more if anything's still unclear.


jason said...

Totally agree -- if the city wants to encourage pedestrian safety, they should make it *easier* to cross, and discourage inattentive (and too-fast) driving.