City staff puts quick car commutes over pedestrian safety

More pedestrian flags and lights to protect children and the elderly from tonnes of metal driven at high speeds.

The city's Transportation Standing Committee met on June 23, and chair Waye Mason ran a tight meeting. A committee meeting with as many presentations and motions as Thursday’s meeting did normally takes up its full allotted time and then some. Perhaps since the committee was considering motions of relatively little consequence or controversy—like a motion to put some bilingual stop signs around town, which passed unanimously—the meeting was able to be short.

Most of the meeting, besides the stop signs, was devoted to various ways to keep pedestrians safe from drivers on Halifax streets. Kind of.

The committee heard a presentation from Martyn Williams, a pedestrian safety advocate and self-described amateur road safety enthusiast. Williams told the committee that the road safety framework is good, but it needs to be better.

“The main concern seems to be interrupting traffic, rather than the underlying premise of vision zero,” said Williams in a phone interview. Williams’ presentation centred on the fact that city staff are prioritizing traffic flow “because the concern is with treating people like traffic modules, rather than people. You know, people who have got lives and who need safety to get from A to B.”

After Williams' presentation, Mason spoke to a staff report about making pedestrians safer on the right- and left-hand turns at intersections with lights. His contention with the report was that staff are recommending buying land and making roads bigger at problem intersections to add specific right, left and straight-through lanes. “You see in Montreal a lot that they do green straight arrow on a single street and then pedestrian-only,” said Mason. “If people got to turn left and right, they have to wait.”

click to enlarge City staff puts quick car commutes over pedestrian safety
Photo from staff presentation about protected turns

“We're certainly more than willing to look at other options,” said municipal engineer and deputy traffic authority Roddy MacIntyre. He explained to Mason that while pedestrian safety is important enough for some minor delays, the real concern is being “able to maintain some semblance of [motor vehicle] capacity on the network.” He said that when drivers experience delays, “what happens now you've got a lot of people making bad choices because they're very frustrated with being held up.”

Arguing in essence that city staff have to prioritize drivers’ happiness because they’re driving a weapon that can do serious harm, and if they get frustrated they could make bad decisions while frustrated and kill people. But you cannot exchange benefits in society for people's lives.

“You're not going to win by trying to favour traffic flow over pedestrian safety. You can't, there's nothing to be achieved by it,” says Williams. He frequently travels to places that prioritize non-car transport and he’s noticed that in Europe, where pedestrians are prioritized, it results in minor increases to commute times but a safer experience for everyone. In Halifax, where staff prioritize “capacity of the network,” he says there are more people being hit by drivers and more days with massive gridlock as emergency services scrape a broken human body off the road.

Mason ended up begrudgingly voting for the motion (which passed) because it is making some progress, but he’s unsure of how staff came up with this solution specifically for pedestrian safety.

“I now see how people are reading the report,” said the department of transportation and public works director Brad Anguish. “I see the culture that, you know, we've been trying to debunk,” he continued, without debunking MacIntyre's remarks about prioritizing vehicle traffic flow over pedestrian safety.

In other news from the committee, the crosswalk flag program got an up-to-date administrative order to better standardize the program across the HRM.

And the 2008 anti-idling policy report, recommending the city continue the program, passed unanimously. Although there’s very little indicating what this policy does, if anything, to reduce idling in the HRM, as the report says idling time for the city’s fleet vehicles has been increasing over the past four years.

About The Author

Matt Stickland

Matt spent 10 years in the Navy where he deployed to Libya with HMCS Charlottetown and then became a submariner until ‘retiring’ in 2018. In 2019 he completed his Bachelor of Journalism from the University of King’s College. Matt is an almost award winning opinion writer.

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