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February 22, 2011 / mike54martin

Walking: An Extreme Sport in Ottawa

Proceed With Caution 

The recent and tragic death of a 64 year old pedestrian in the core of the downtown raises a number of serious safety concerns. It appears that the combination of heavy construction vehicles and pedestrians is a particularly dangerous mix and there needs to be a special investigation into the circumstances of this horrible event, with recommendations to prevent other tragedies in the future.

But even without construction, the combination of hurried pedestrians, aggressive drivers, distracted cyclists and twelve ton buses is still a potential and daily hazard for all concerned. As a recent convert to the car-less community I am suffering from acute steering wheel deprivation. I am also getting used to life on this side of the street, or rather the sidewalk. What I’ve discovered is that it is not only not easy being green, it can be downright dangerous.

The only imminent move to alleviate the situation at least for cyclists is a plan for a bicycle only lane on Laurier Avenue but unless they practice extreme caution, especially while trying to execute turns, their spirits and their bikes may soon be crushed. As for the rest of us we will have to wait until the proposed transit tunnel gets underway, if that is actually going to happen, before we get some relief by pushing buses underground. Even then our urban landscape will remain a battleground as all of us try to safely negotiate our way to work,

First some facts to sober our current car-focused thinking. Approximately 70% of all traffic fatalities and 95% of all injuries occur in urban locations and on average one person a day is killed in a motor vehicle accident every day in Canada. Not all of these are pedestrians of course but it does give you a sense about how high the risk is, as well as the tolerance we have built up for the death and dismemberment of people as a direct result of our obsession with driving.

Bringing it closer to home, Ottawa’s latest road safety report from 2009 shows that there were 26 deaths from collisions last year including 6 pedestrians and there were 4,000 people injured that included 346 pedestrians. Despite a pedestrian and driver campaign called “Walk Like Your Life Depends On It” the numbers are eerily similar to the previous year. And just judging by media reports this year isn’t going to get any better.

Unless we are prepared to continue to “run like our lives depend on it” while crossing intersections in the downtown core, something has to change. So what can be done? Actually, lots.

We could look at reducing the speed limits in the downtown core. If you get hit by a car at 50 kph you are most likely going to die. At 40 kph your chances of dying are improved to 85% and at 30 kph your odds increase dramatically and you actually have a real chance, 55% of living. Certainly an option to consider if your goal is harm reduction.

We could look at shutting down the downtown core to vehicular traffic, except for buses and taxis, during peak pedestrian periods. This would probably cause major angst amongst drivers and exemptions would have to be made for multi-car vehicles, and anyone who simply cannot walk the extra four or five blocks. We would also need to find swaths of parking locations for people to park away from the core. As much as this would be an enviable option for a pedestrian like me it is not really workable for almost everyone else.

Another option that has worked in many other locations to make intersections safer is to look at stopping right turns on red lights and moving to a system where all traffic is stopped both ways to allow pedestrians to cross. After they have safely crossed then the lights turn green to go north-south, followed by a green light for east-west traffic. This is a system that is in effect in many other cities in the world, including San Francisco. A friend of mine recently visited there and remarked that although it looks clumsy it actually works very well and you don’t have to run across the street or dodge right-turning traffic who are trying to negotiate around you. It means that everyone has to wait their turn, but it also means that there’s a greater chance that we all get to work alive.

We need some immediate action to change course in Ottawa while we are waiting for the bigger fixes. This might be one solution that maybe nobody likes, but everyone can live with. At the same time we need to continue our public education of all those who share the roadways and sidewalks in Ottawa and pedestrians in particular should never let their guard down when approaching an intersection. And of course everyone, especially drivers need to learn to relax and take a deep breath. Our lives are a little more important than drivers getting to work on time.

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