Special Report: Walkable Streets

Time to Issue a Recall on Hamilton's Unsafe Streets

Our streets are designed for fast driving, and that has made them far more dangerous than average. When are we going to 'recall our streets' to fix their fatal design flaws?

By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published April 02, 2014

Last night on the news I watched a report on the United States Senate hearing into a fatal design flaw in some of GM's vehicles.

This faulty ignition switch design sometimes causes the engine to suddenly cut out and has apparently led to 13 deaths since 2001. There were huge protests and public outcry over these deaths.

The Senators were livid that GM ignored this design flaw and continued to fit vehicles with this ignition for five years, and refused to recall faulty vehicles when they finally fixed the design in new vehicles. They grilled the president of GM for hours.

That's 13 deaths in 13 years, or one death per year for the United States, a population of over 300 million. It is appalling that GM callously ignored the risks to save a few dollars.

Another Fatal Design Flaw

Now contrast this with another fatal design flaw.

Police block Herkimer at Queen on March 7 after a vehicle collided with a pedestrian (Image Credit: Andrew Spearin)
Police block Herkimer at Queen on March 7 after a vehicle collided with a pedestrian (Image Credit: Andrew Spearin)

Here in Hamilton we've known that our standard 1950s minor- and major-arterial road design in the lower city reliably leads to more pedestrian deaths than other alternative designs.

I'm talking about our system of wide multi-lane one-way streets, with no pedestrian crossings for many blocks, narrow sidewalks with no buffers, right turns on red and lights timed for a "green wave" in which cars can travel for blocks at 50-70 km/h and higher.

We see clear evidence of this in the 2002 Durand Traffic Study, which found that 40 percent of motorists exceeded the 50 km/h speed limit on residential streets like Bay, Charlton and Herkimer, and that 200 vehicles a day exceeded 65 km/h on these streets!

According to the City's 2010 Traffic Safety Status Report [PDF], in the 13 year period from 1998 to 2010, our roads killed killed 61 pedestrians and injured 3,233.

Last year, the Social Planning and Research Council produced a report that found Hamilton is the second most dangerous city in Ontario for pedestrians, with a pedestrian injury rate almost one and a half times the provincial average.

This is despite the fact that Hamilton is governed by exactly the same Highway Traffic Act and the same legislation and standards as the rest of the province.

Reduce Vehicle Speeds

One of the sad facts that comes out of Hamilton's Traffic Safety Report is that about 95 percent of collisions with pedestrians lead to injury or death. It is vital to avoid collisions in the first place.

The simplest way to do this is to slow traffic, and to force motorists to pay attention by making it impossible not to pay attention to their surroundings. Good design can do that:

In 2012, the Ontario Coroner completed a study of all 95 pedestrian deaths in Ontario in 2010. It concluded that these deaths were preventable and that the best way to prevent pedestrian deaths is to reduce vehicle speeds.

The most dangerous streets are streets that, like far too many of Hamilton's streets, are designed for the goal of fast vehicle speeds. The safest streets are those with a "complete streets" approach to roadway design.

But we have deliberately chosen to maintain a uniquely dangerous road design despite knowing, and being constantly reminded by experts, why our roads are dangerous and how we can fix them.

Recall Our Streets

In the USA, a known design flaw killed 13 people in the entire country in 13 years. That statistic can't be explained away by shifting the blame to "careless" victims. The Senators didn't say: 'Motorists should know how to deal with a power loss of their vehicle. You really can't blame GM since it would have been expensive and inconvenient to fix the problem and recall all those vehicles.'

But here in Hamilton, we accept as fatality - helplessness in the face of fate - that the known engineering design flaws in our roads have killed 61 pedestrians and injured 3,233 in a similar 13 year period. That's an average of about five deaths and 250 injuries per year, against a population of just 500,000.

Yet the most common response is to blame pedestrians and tell them they should have been more careful!

To make another comparison, if a common piece of factory equipment killed 61 workers and injured 3,233 in 13 years, the response wouldn't be: "Workers just need to pay attention and be more careful". This piece of equipment would be banned and re-designed to be safe for workers in short order!

Americans are outraged over 13 deaths from faulty design in a car that was known to the experts, but ignored. Where is our outrage over 61 deaths from our dangerous arterial road designs in our city of 500,000?

Just like GM, we've been told how to fix it, but we decided the expense and inconvenience was too great to bother.

When are we going to "recall our streets" to fix their fatal design flaws?

Nicholas Kevlahan was born and raised in Vancouver, and then spent eight years in England and France before returning to Canada in 1998. He has been a Hamiltonian since then, and is a strong believer in the potential of this city. Although he spends most of his time as a mathematician, he is also a passionate amateur urbanist and a fan of good design. You can often spot him strolling the streets of the downtown, shopping at the Market. Nicholas is the spokesperson for Hamilton Light Rail.

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By matthewsweet (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 12:55:25

"Nobody panics when everything goes according to plan...Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos...You know the thing about chaos? It's fear" - The Joker

No one gets outraged about traffic fatalities because it is just a part of the system, an unfortunate but necessary byproduct of the car culture. For the most part, we unflinchingly accept the risks of the car culture because "that's just the way things are". A faulty design in a car upsets the established order. The risks of driving are accepted and apologized for. Create a risk that you can't see that hides in the background, like a faulty part, and that's a reason for fear and outrage.

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By The X Guy (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 13:51:33

My two cents.....

Although I think the "reengineering" of streets will improve things somewhat, I don't think it will completely solve all of these issues. That won’t really happen until people's attitudes and habits change behind the wheel.

As humans we get frustrated when we are inconvenienced. We want results as quickly and easily as possible. We hate encountering obstacles. And when something does happen that causes us frustration, we let it simmer for a period of time, becoming angry and dwelling on it. How many times has something negative happened during that "angry period" because the action we are performing goes beyond the set limits and rules of that action. This can apply to anything in life, but on the road its things like speeding, running yellow lights, not stopping at stop signs, or stopping at red light when making right hand turn.

And as humans we get in the habit of repeating actions. Even actions if they are technically illegal, because we've learned over time there are no consequences (ie a traffic ticket....and just a traffic ticket)

And there lies the real problem, IMO. People still speed on two way streets, 35 km/hr, or outrun red lights, and break other traffic laws – no matter how a street is designed. People really need to realize the consequences of their actions. I know there has been discussion in this forum recently of legal responsibility. I think it will take time, but over time, the laws should change to make everyone more accountable. Which is scary cause we’ve all broke these rules a few times before....

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 14:55:02 in reply to Comment 99646

If your argument is true, how would you explain the fact that Hamilton's pedestrians are nearly 50% more likely to be injured compared to the provincial average?. Is there something in the water that makes the habits of Hamilton drivers and pedestrians more dangerous than those of residents in other cities? Is it because there is an escarpment running through the city, which no other city has? Are they falling off of it? Or maybe because of Hamilton's infrastructure deficit, the sidewalks are more uneven and people are tripping on them more than in other cities?

I don't really get what higher enforcement measures is supposed to accomplish. Are drivers going to press on the brakes harder during a car-pedestrian collision because they know that they could face steeper fines or punishments? Is a car going to require less distance to stop at a given speed because the driver takes the rules of the road more seriously? Are they going to have an easier time of seeing cyclists in their blind spot because they stopped before turning right?

We've heard these arguments before - peoples attitudes need to change, and rules need heavier enforcement. Where is the data showing that this approach is successful?

Comment edited by AnjoMan on 2014-04-02 15:01:30

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By The X Guy (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 23:40:25 in reply to Comment 99653

I think you got the impression that I was against reengineering. I'm for it. What I was arguing was that harsher penalities need to be introduced to compliment the changes.
We can introduce basic changes to streets including reduced speed, crosswalks, etc, however drivers still need to respect the changes, whether it's speed limit, crossings, etc. And many do not, as they are willing to take the chance of getting caught because the penalty is minimal. My argument is that drivers willing be more aware knowing that the penalties would be severe.

In the original article, the comparison of the factory equipment was used. Yes, we need to redesign the equipment, but don't you think we also need to educate the operator as well as they may not be using it properly?

where the design can still somehow fail, the threat of harsh concequences can close that gap.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 23:53:59 in reply to Comment 99685

In the original article, the comparison of the factory equipment was used. Yes, we need to redesign the equipment, but don't you think we also need to educate the operator as well as they may not be using it properly?

Comment edited by AnjoMan on 2014-04-03 23:54:15

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 14:35:30 in reply to Comment 99646

Even without any re-engineering, just look at the change in attitude regarding drinking and driving. It used to be regarded as completely acceptable to drink and drive, unless you were obviously very drunk. Now it isn't.

In this case, re-engineering the streets to make it difficult, if not impossible, to drive fast without paying attention means less reliance on enforcement to change behaviour. But I agree that there is a big gap between the law and official advice, and what people actual feel is okay.

According to the law, the speed limit is an absolute maximum, with no wiggle room. And it not a minimum: often the safe speed, especially in urban areas, is much less that the maximum. And yet, most drivers feel that if (motor vehicle) traffic doesn't limit speed, then the posted limit is a minimum speed and that they shouldn't even get ticketed for doing, say, 10km/h over the limit.

It is actually pretty easy to engineer a street that is safe for drivers, but feels very uncomfortable driving at much over 30km/h. Some drivers might try it, but most won't. And that will set a new behavioural norm.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2014-04-02 14:37:35

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By alhambra (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 15:57:57

totally agree with this article. In 20 years people will look back at our era as a time when people were senselessly killed on city streets, just like we look back at 50 years ago when people were regularly killed in workplaces. What changed in the workplace? A realisation that there are very few accidents, and that the issue isn't whether accidents happen but how to design around their predictable consequences. Also, employers lost a lot of money in lawsuits. Unfortunately public agencies don't really care about being sued because it just goes back to the taxpayer.

This is not to say that there still aren't too many workplace injuries.

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By Mike (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 16:17:40

The city council needs to wake up!! People are moving families downtown and investors are creating density condos. Money is coming to Hamilton just look at the property values. It has spread this far from Toronto and further. 1 in 5 homes being sold in Hamilton are Toronto ex-pats. No one is moving to the mountain from Toronto because they love the downtown urban fell. Herkimer and Queen are residential now and should be treated as such. They need to be converted to 2 way pedestrian friendly sidewalks.

The blue collar closed minded mentality of the Hamilton mountain has to realize that the more we have urban revitalization downtown the less of a tax burden it becomes and everyone benefits. WAKE UP!!! You don't need to race up the mountain after work to your boring cookie cutter home with a double car garage and huge front lawn to waste away water with your sprinkler all summer! I am tired of the trash talking mountain people saying how bad it is downtown. Now its our turn. Downtown is making a major comeback. Enough said.

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By scrap (anonymous) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 18:39:50

While I appreciate what you are fighting for, I wonder about your nativity, considering your comment about worker's safety and equipment. I have studied labour and workers fought for decades upon decades for safety which in reality is being dismantled.

.

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By jeffreygeoffrey (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 20:38:32

Vision Zero for Hamilton! http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vision_Zero

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By Kevo (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 20:40:25

Would anyone happen to know where I could find data on fatalities with at least a somewhat specific location (i.e. intersection or address) for this past year or past several years? I think it'd be pretty interesting to map out. If not I might just dig through news articles and police tweets and try to find some from the last couple of years.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 02, 2014 at 22:38:17

Yes, there is a traffic design engineering standard for safe streets. An engineering standard that is routinely violated in Hamilton. This is the Dutch CROW traffic design engineering standard.

There is an overview in English here:

http://www.crow.nl/english-summary

And here is the link to order the Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic. Which the government of The Netherlands has conveniently translated into English. And costs 90 euros. Pricy, but how much is human life worth?

http://www.crow.nl/publicaties/design-ma...

Every Dutch street project is designed using these engineering standards. Which is why their infrastructure is consistently excellent everywhere.

These engineering standards can easily be used to transform Hamilton in the same way that Dutch cities were redesigned. All one has to do is take the manual off the shelf and use it!

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By screencarp (registered) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 01:26:44

These incidents do not often occur on "wide multi-lane one-way streets", we are not a European city and these streets have been here since the 50's. Hamilton is not in any way equivalent to Amsterdam or Stockholm.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted April 03, 2014 at 06:19:18 in reply to Comment 99689

The reason we're not like those European cities is that they have spent the past 30-40 years making different planning decisions than we have been making.

In the 1970s, most European cities looked very much like their North American counterparts: steadily widening streets, heavy automobile traffic, rapidly falling rates of walking, cycling and transit. In cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen, for example, the cycling modal share was in the very low single digits before the modern resurgence of cycling began.

Then, starting after the first OPEC crisis, many European cities began to reduce their reliance on the automobile (partly in response to the fact that Europe imports most of its oil and is thus vulnerable to price shocks). Instead of widening streets, they built separated bike lanes. Instead of running urban expressways through city centres, they began building modern LRT lines (after having previously ripped out their old streetcar lines, just like us). Instead of starving their transit budgets, they increased them, boosting service levels to the point that transit became a viable option for more people.

My favourite example is Paris, a city in which cycling was virtually unheard-of just a couple of decades ago. Starting in the mid-'90s, after a new medical study found that air pollution was killing far too many Parisians and a Metro workers strike ground the city to a halt, city officials decided to invest in a cycling network. People scoffed - "This is Paris. No one rides a bike! Besides, where will the bike lanes go? Our streets are already congested with cars!"

But the city embarked on an ambitious plan to install hundreds of kilometres of new bike lanes. Also, since most Parisians live in apartments and the buildings have only tiny retrofitted elevators, the City also established a municipal bike-share program with over 20,000 bikes at 2,000 stations around the city.

Spoiler alert: Paris has become a cycling city.

Cycling in Paris

The only way Hamilton is not "equivalent" to these cities is that we have stubbornly resisted making the policy decisions that are proven to change the evolution of the city and provide people with the option for a more balanced set of choices in how to get around.

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By RobF (registered) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 16:36:15 in reply to Comment 99697

The Hamilton isn't a "...." kind of city argument is a tiring distraction. Hamilton doesn't have to be anything other than itself for us to want and demand safer and better designed multi-purpose, multi-modal streets.

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By LOL_all_over_again (registered) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 10:20:16

Comments with a score below -5 are hidden by default.

You can change or disable this comment score threshold by registering an RTH user account.

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By LOL@LOL (anonymous) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 11:27:17 in reply to Comment 99708

Oh yeah, Nicholas is trying to bury that report. So much so that he.....linked to it right in the article, which you obviously didn't bother to read. He's also written about it other times despite your accusation that he's ignoring it. Maybe when you were skimming that report for something that sounds like it supports your opinion you where the rate of injuries for people in cars has been falling steadily while the rate of injuries for pedestrians and cyclists has stayed the same.

Now please go away and stop wasting everyone's time.

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By LOL_all_over_again (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 00:18:41 in reply to Comment 99711

He is ignoring every thing in the report that he does not like. But he mentioned it all right, when he cherry picked one single fact, the number of fatalities. But he ignored all the rest of it, especially the part where it states

"Comparison of Hamilton with selected Canadian Cities

On the basis of total collisions per 1,000 population, Hamilton has very close to the lowest rate in Canada (Exhibit 2.2). On the basis of injury collisions per 1,000 population, the City also has very close to the best performance in Canada when compared to cities with similar road operation responsibilities."

All the stats that gave us such terrific placing were built on our safe efficient network of one way roads. If the numbers are changing and Hamilton is more dangerous now then it was because of the absurd changes made to our road network. You know changing some of the streets to 2 way and making a total mess of things.

I am sure that you would like me to go away then you and your friends can keep living in your little dream world and nobody would drop little facts into your dreams that contradict the crap that you espouse

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By A WOUNDED PASSENGER (anonymous) | Posted April 03, 2014 at 17:08:36 in reply to Comment 99711

I am so hurt that you don't value the lives of drivers and passengers as much as pedestrians and cyclists.

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By KevinLove (registered) | Posted April 04, 2014 at 00:01:15 in reply to Comment 99738

Because people who launch lethal cancer poison attacks upon myself and my children do that because they really, really value human life.

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