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Crossed signals: Reducing the risk of pedestrian death in Vancouver

A pedestrian crossing in Vancouver May 24, 2012.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail/John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

A 74-year-old woman was hit at Robson and Howe downtown in broad daylight by an SUV on March 6 and died later that afternoon.

A 75-year-old woman was hit and killed at the intersection of 41st Avenue and Ross Street in southeast Vancouver 11 days later. A 29-year-old woman was critically injured in yet another car-and-pedestrian crash March 31 at the intersection of Broadway and Rupert Street.

The common element for all three: They were walking in marked crosswalks, a place that pedestrians assume is a sanctified safe zone for them. And none involved driver speed or alcohol, according to police reports.

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But it turns out that crosswalks are one of the least effective ways of protecting pedestrians from being hit by vehicles, according to a new study commissioned by the City of Vancouver to analyze what really works and doesn't.

It's not just crosswalks that are the problem. It's signs, flashing lights and even roads themselves – all of which too many people assume are guaranteed to ensure safety for pedestrians and drivers.

"We have been designing roads that are killing about 1.3 million people a year. And we're getting away with it by blaming the road user," said University of British Columbia civil-engineering professor Tarek Sayed, who is working with Vancouver city engineers to figure out what is really happening at high-crash locations and how to change it.

What does work, Dr. Sayed said, is truly analyzing what road users do and designing systems that reduce their possibilities for bad choices: everything from rumble strips put on highways to wake up sleeping drivers, to scramble intersections that stop cars in all directions so pedestrians can take over the whole space briefly.

Vancouver has done reasonably well in recent years at reducing pedestrian carnage. Accident rates have been steadily declining and, among 17 major cities examined in the city's specially commissioned Pedestrian Safety Study, only Boston, Ottawa and Stockholm showed lower rates of pedestrian injuries.

But, in a city that its politicians and planners promote constantly as one of the most walkable in North America, being fourth isn't seen as good enough.

City transportation engineer Jerry Dobrovolny said the city is taking a new approach, with more scientific analysis and understanding of behavioural trends.

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"Trying to improve things the way we were is like driving a car with the windshield blacked out and looking in the rearview mirror as you move forward," Mr. Dobrovolny said.

Using more careful analysis, it's become clear that some strategies that would seem to work intuitively don't.

"We need to do more because there is a different mindset in the public," Mr. Dobrovolny said. "When I was a kid and stepped off the curb, cars stopped. Now you have to go a couple of steps into the street. So a crosswalk is better than nothing, but the effect of a crosswalk is not what you got 20 years ago."

The crosswalks marked with zebra stripes or flashing yellow lights don't do much better. "The special crosswalks we use were more effective only on a two-lane road," he said. "On four-lane roads, drivers were not stopping, even for a flashing amber."

The city's study, which looked at crash data from 2005-2010, confirmed a lot of existing patterns that traffic researchers have found before: Seniors and young people are the groups most likely to get hit. Pedestrians get hit more often after dark, which makes darker winter months more crash-prone. Accidents are more likely to happen in the afternoon rush hours and on weekdays.

But the data also uncovered some new patterns. Among them: Areas with relatively low densities but high levels of commuter traffic running through them – several east-side neighbourhoods and Shaughnessy, with the commuter streets Granville and Oak – had the highest crash rates per capita in the city.

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Dr. Sayed and his team have devised a computerized method of analyzing videotape of intersections, in order to do rapid conflict analysis of problem intersections. (Until UBC came up with that innovation, intersection conflict analysis was done by sending people out in the field to watch – expensive and subjective.)

That way, engineers can understand what is going wrong by examining the dozens of near-misses that happen at high-volume intersections in a few days, instead of having to wait for three years of crash data.

They're in the process of analyzing data from the intersection of Main and Hastings Streets, the worst crash location in the city for many years running.

City council instituted a special 30-kilometre-an-hour zone last year along six blocks of the Downtown Eastside arterial to try to reduce the injury rate. As well, city engineers put in countdown timers at the intersection, one of 18 high-crash spots in the city where timers have been installed.

So far, no one knows if the measures are working. Police report they have issued 56 tickets to drivers in that zone this year (and 27 to pedestrians) but have no other data.

"My sense is that pedestrian strikes are down and we haven't had a fatality (at least none have been brought to our attention) since the measures were brought in," wrote Aiyanas Ormond of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, which pushed for the speed reduction, in conjunction with Vancouver Coastal Health.

When Dr. Sayed's team has finished analyzing the data, the city will know whether the new measures helped. That's far better than waiting for three years of injuries and deaths to figure out where to go next.

Top 21 Locations and Number of Pedestrian Collisions (vehicle/pedestrian) from 2005 to 2010

1. East Hastings Street / Main Street: 41

2. Davie Street / Burrard Street: 25

3. East Broadway / Commercial Drive: 22

4. Kingsway / Joyce Street: 20

5. East Broadway / Clark Drive: 18

6. West Georgia Street / Burrard Street: 17

7. East 49th Ave / Victoria Drive: 16

8. Kingsway / Victoria Drive: 15

9. East Broadway / Fraser Street: 15

10. Terminal Ave / Main Street: 14

11. West Hastings Street / Carrall Street: 14

12. West 12th Ave / Oak Street: 13

13. East 49th Ave / Main Street: 13

14. East Hastings Street / Renfrew Street: 13

15. West Broadway / Granville Street: 12

16. East 57th Ave / Knight Street: 12

17. Vanness Ave / Joyce Street: 12

18. East 12th Ave / Kingsway: 12

19. West 70th Ave / Granville Street: 11

20. West 41st Ave / Oak Street: 11

21. West Georgia Street / Granville Street: 11

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About the Author
Urban affairs contributor

Frances Bula has written about urban issues and city politics in B.C.’s Vancouver region, covering everything from Downtown Eastside drug addiction to billion-dollar development projects, since 1994. More

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