On Lower Speed Limits, Safety, and the Entitlement of Pedestrians

Don’t read the comments. Those are words to live by, and generally, I do a pretty decent job of doing just that. Whether it’s the comments on a story that I agree with, or a story that I don’t, I’ve found, like I’m sure many others have as well, that it’s often better to just avoid the crazy that inhabits the comment section and move on to something else. Sometimes though, for reasons that I can’t explain, I read the comments. And worse still, it’s almost always in a situation where there is a high likelihood of my finding something that will bother me.

This is what happened on Monday when I came across a story from CBC on the possibility of the speed limits on Jasper Avenue and Whyte Avenue being lowered as a measure to help improve pedestrian safety. This is a very interesting topic – one that I’ll eventually get to in the post – but any time that it’s even suggested that a speed limit should be reduced the knee jerk reaction from some is always going to be no. The situation or the reason for the change doesn’t matter, all that matters is that a reduced speed limit is wrong. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what I found in the comments.

The problem isn’t so much the speed limits but the ENTITLED pedestrians who do not look both ways before crossing a street. A fundamental skill taught to children which surprisingly you don’t hear many on the news being struck since most pedestrians struck are adults probably with a latte in one hand and their face glued to their phones. Pedestrian flow showed be revised and jaywalking needs to be enforced, the hand is flashing, you don’t start crossing the damn street, you wait. How about multi-directional crosswalks in major intersections like 104st and Gateway?

To be clear, I don’t want to attack the author of this comment, but before I get to what the story was actually about I wanted to look at the comment a little more closely since it was supported in a couple of conversations that I had on Twitter on this subject.

I walk along Jasper Avenue and the paralleling roads on an almost daily basis. And yes there are some pedestrians who jaywalk when they probably shouldn’t, but they always take a look for cars before they do because, well. pedestrians don’t usually come out on top in collisions with cars. As for people just walking out into traffic and assuming that cars will stop for them, honestly, that’s something that I just haven’t seen. I don’t know the author of the above comment, it’s possible that he or she experienced something like what’s described, but I have trouble believing that it happens so frequently that a simple refresher course on the fundamental skill of looking both ways would solve all, or even some, of the problem.

Being a pedestrian in Edmonton isn’t always easy. I frequently have drivers, who I presume either don’t understand the laws or are paying very little attention to what they’re doing, drive through a crosswalk that I’m already well into, by which I mean more than a lane away from the curb. At a minimum this happens once a week, often times more. And there are times when I stand at a crosswalk, one complete with a sign, only to have three or four cars in a row fail to stop. To deal with this I’ll often move like I intend to cross, just to see if I can get the driver to stop for me.

Yes, there are pedestrians who do stupid things. Just like there are drivers who do stupid things. In both cases though it’s worth remembering that these people are more likely the exception than the rule, and solving the problem likely goes well beyond dealing with the actions of the minority. That’s a good place to start but it’s just that, a start.

Now, onto the real subject of this post, the possibility of reducing speed limits on Jasper and Whyte Avenue to help improve pedestrian safety.

The reality is, that as long as pedestrians and vehicles share the same place there will be collisions, this is almost unavoidable. That collisions are unavoidable doesn’t mean, or shouldn’t mean, that we have to accept fatalities as the outcome of these collisions though. Through a combination of design, signage, and education we can reduce the likelihood of collisions, and when those collisions do occur they will, hopefully, have a less severe outcome for the pedestrian.

And if you’re looking to improve pedestrian safety, slowing down vehicles is almost always step number one. And this makes sense because people are pretty fragile, especially when hit by a few thousand pounds of moving metal. In real numbers, if hit by a vehicle travelling at 50km/hr (30mph),  a pedestrian has about a 50/50 chance of surviving. That’s not very good. And as you can see from the image below, small changes in speed substantially alter the pedestrians chances of survival.

Traveling speed affects not only the outcome of the collision but the collision risk as well. At faster speeds in the time between perception and reaction, more distance is travelled, which means that avoiding a hazard, in this case a pedestrian, becomes more difficult. From the World Health Organization’s Pedestrian Safety Manual:

Impact speed is influenced by travelling speed and braking. Most speed is lost in the last few metres of braking, so that when a car travelling at 40 km/h has stopped, a car that was travelling at 50 km/h is still travelling at 41 km/h. Thus, a difference of 10 km/h in initial travelling speed can result in a difference of 41 km/h in impact speed.

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There’s really no way around it, that 10km/hr difference can be very valuable to the pedestrian. And it’s a change that probably wouldn’t affect drivers nearly as much as they might think either.

Both Jasper and Whyte Avenue are busy streets for most of the day, but they are by far busiest, at least in terms of vehicle traffic, during the morning and afternoon rush hours. Times when travelling at the current 50km/hr speed limit isn’t typically possible due to congestion. So a change in the speed limit would have little or no impact on the daily commuter’s drive to work, or the return trip home at the end of the day. I doubt the difference would even add up to five minutes a day. Off peak hours though, it’s a different story, one that helps illustrate the dual purpose that roadways like this serve.

If Jasper Avenue is part of your daily commute, then for you it might be just a road. For me though, living, working, and playing downtown, it’s part of my community. And just like you might not want someone driving unsafely in your community, I’d prefer it if people didn’t do the same in mine. I understand the dual purpose of roads like Whyte and Jasper Avenue, and I accept it as part of living in a urban setting. There are always going to be vehicles on theses roads, I don’t want to change that, but if Edmonton is truly serious about encouraging more people to live in these areas then these roads have to stop being about all about vehicle movement, and start becoming streets for everyone. Balancing the needs of the commuter against the needs of the resident isn’t always easy but it’s something that has to be done if the community is going to grow.

As far as I’m concerned, I think the benefit is there to reduce the speed limit on these roads. If it were up to me, I’d do it tomorrow. But, as you might recall, earlier I mentioned three things that will help move us towards a safer pedestrian environment: design, signage, and education. So while I think that changing the speed limit by changing the signs is a good starting point, I don’t think it’s the end of the process either.

You can start by changing the speed limit, ultimately though these streets need to be redesigned so that they are not only more pedestrian friendly, but also so 40km/hr feels like the fastest that you’d want to drive on them. Drivers can, and often do, ignore signs, but if they don’t feel comfortable doing something they won’t do it. This can be achieved by narrowing lane widths, reducing crossing distances with pedestrian bump outs (these will also make pedestrians more visible), and even by allowing off peak hour parking in the curb lane; the extra space can them be reclaimed by pedestrians in the form of wider sidewalks.

This has already started to happen along Jasper Avenue, from 100 Street to 103 Street, and will will likely continue along the corridor as funds become available. And when this work is complete the street will feel much different to the driver, the idea of driving 50km/hr might well seem crazy and dangerous. But until that happens, I think changing the speed limits would be a good idea.