Downtown Traffic: Proceed With Caution
By Mike Martin
Every few months it seems we have to go through the mourning of another senseless death on the streets of downtown Ottawa. This time it’s the loss of a young cyclist who was no match for the tons of steel that circled around her. I do not hate cars, in fact some of my best friends have them, but I have to say that I am growing to understand that the current mix of cars, buses, bicycles and people doesn’t mix. In fact when they are in such close proximity in the downtown core disaster is not just likely, it is inevitable.
It is also clear that the bicycle-only lane on Laurier Avenueis not a panacea for our problems and in fact it may be giving some people, both cyclists and drivers, a false sense of security. The fact is that the combination of hurried pedestrians, aggressive drivers, distracted cyclists and twelve ton buses is still a potential and daily hazard for all concerned.
Simply put it is not safe to walk or cycle downtown and if you don’t believe me then take this test. Go to any downtown intersection at 8:30 in the morning and try to cross the street at a regular pace of walking. Walk slowly but not franticly. I guarantee that someone driving a car will either honk their horn at you or point their vehicle directly at you, trying to nudge you more quickly through the intersection. And if you don’t move fast enough they will almost bump you to help you along. Riding a bike is no piece of cake either and even in the “safe”zone of Laurier Avenue, cyclists take their life in their handlebars when they approach intersections and the line-up of vehicles waiting impatiently to turn.
As noted earlier I am not anti-car. I love them for long drives and trips out of town; I just think that their days co-existing with people in downtown areas are numbered. It may come down to us or them. The fact is that 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.
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, includingSan 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 people getting to work on time.
Mike Martin is an Ottawa freelance writer and workplace wellness consultant and the author of Change the Things You Can (Dealing with Difficult People). For more information please visit: