Special Report: Walkable Streets

Forgiving and Unforgiving Road Networks

The only way to achieve a real reduction in pedestrian casualties is through a street network designed to anticipate, tolerate and forgive human imperfection.

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 11, 2011

At 8:30 this morning I was standing at the southeast corner of Locke Street North and King Street West, waiting for the light to change so I could cross northbound. Two girls - I'll guess they were around 12 years old - were standing on the northeast corner waiting to cross southbound.

The girls were chatting and maybe not paying that much attention to their surroundings. The light hadn't yet changed (King Street gets a long green ligh), but one girl suddenly stepped forward onto the street, and the other girl, taking her cue, stepped out as well.

They were maybe a lane and a half across the street when an approaching car honked repeatedly and slowed, edging to the left to avoid hitting them.

They jumped in shock and backpedaled furiously onto the curb again, grabbing each other for support and looking terrified. By the time the light changed and they crossed with trepidation after looking back and forth several times, they were giggling nervously again.

The two girls were lucky. Thank goodness that driver was alert and cautious and managed to avoid a collision. Not all drivers are.

Judgmental Commentary

From some of the hyperbole flying around recently with respect to pedestrian safety in Hamilton, some people apparently believe that if these girls had been struck by a car, it would be their fault and they would deserve whatever happened to them.

But as I tried to argue in an earlier essay, it's just not good enough to exhort people to be more careful and then hold them personally accountable when they make mistakes. I'll quote again from James Bagian, the aerospace engineer-turned-medical patient safety officer:

Telling people to be careful is not effective. Humans are not reliable that way. Some are better than others, but nobody's perfect. You need a solution that's not about making people perfect.

Let me repeat that: You need a solution that's not about making people perfect. People are not perfect and will never be. If we really want to prevent more fatalities, we have to abandon the strategy of trying to legislate, browbeat and threaten people into being as careful as they ought to be.

Instead, we need an approach that assumes people are imperfect and establishes an environment that is more fault-tolerant than our streets are today: streets in which neither driver error nor pedestrian error are likely to result in loss of life.

Fault-Intolerant Network

King Street is wide and unencumbered along the stretch starting at Locke: four lanes all westbound increasing just past Locke to five, synchronized lights, no curbside parking, no visual distractions. Traffic routinely bears down this stretch at 50-60 km/hr.

(Pedestrians aren't even allowed to cross north-south on the west side of the intersection, lest they get in the way of some motorist turning west onto King.)

The environment is set up to punish error - not only to increase the likelihood that an error will result in a casualty, but also to increase the severity of any injuries that do take place.

It's Physics

The kinetic energy of a vehicle is proportionate to the square of its velocity (KE = 1/2 mv2). Traffic collision studies reflect this: the collision fatality rate for pedestrians is 5% for vehicles traveling at 32 km/h and jumps to 85% for vehicles traveling at 64 km/h.

Vehicles traveling at higher speeds have not only a much higher chance of killing any pedestrians they hit, but also a higher chance of hitting pedestrians in the first place, due to increased reaction time and longer stopping distances.

In other words, the faster your vehicle is going, the longer it takes you to bring it to a stop if something gets in your way.

Again, traffic collision research clearly demonstrates this geometric correlation: a moving vehicle has about twice the risk of a casualty crash at 65 km/h compared to 60 km/h, and about four times the risk at 70 km/h compared to 60 km/h.

Toward a Forgiving Network

It's as easy as it is unhelpful to blame distracted or impatient or careless pedestrians for putting themselves in danger. The simple fact is that there will be pedestrians who do these things - and on an intolerant road network, there will be collisions and casualties.

No amount of enforcement is enough to force every pedestrian to be careful and safe every time.

The only way to achieve that is through a street network designed to anticipate, tolerate and forgive human imperfection. Our fast network of multi-lane, one-way thoroughfares is anything but forgiving to pedestrians.

A forgiving network is a network engineered so that vehicles move slowly enough that a) the risk of hitting pedestrians is much lower and b) the risk of injuring pedestrians in a collision is also much lower.

To achieve this, we need to give up the incompatible transportation goal of moving large volumes of vehicles at high speeds. It's that simple.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted April 11, 2011 at 15:43:53

Just so we can put to rest the idea of these so called "superhighways" that so many of RTHers seem to think plague Hamilton, I've summarized the number of lanes along the rest of King (East of Locke)

Ryan makes note that King West of Locke is "four lanes all westbound increasing just past Locke to five, synchronized lights, no curbside parking, no visual distractions".

For balance, please note that East of Locke, King accomodates 2-3 lanes of traffic all westbound, synchronized lights, lots of curbside parking, and lots of visual distractions.

King Street: Wentworth to Wellington (850m) is 4 lanes with on street parking on both sides for most of it (making it, effectively, 2 lanes of traffic)

Wellington to Catherine (500m) is 2 lanes with bump outs for on street parking on both sides for most it

Catherine to Queen (1km) varies between 3 and 4 lanes of traffic, and varies between no, to double sided on street parking. Best estimate/guess is an average of 3 lanes of traffic with 1 sided on street parking.

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By bob (registered) | Posted April 11, 2011 at 16:34:00 in reply to Comment 62055

so "for balance" you just identified a single stretch of walkable streets, and then you claim this will 'put to rest' the idea that superhighways plague Hamilton? Do the same trick for Main street please. Then Cannon. Then Wilson. Then Queen. Then Wellington. Then Victoria. Then York - oh right you've now got some "balance" now there.

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By Brantfordistan (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2011 at 16:29:29 in reply to Comment 62055

"Ryan makes note that King West of Locke is "four lanes all westbound increasing just past Locke to five, synchronized lights, no curbside parking, no visual distractions"."

Yep, and when I'm heading out on King coming home from work, that part feels like coming out of a tunnel back onto the open road. I can't help myself, I just gotta open it up a bit. I'm usually close to the back of the Green Wave so there's lots of room to speed up to 60, 70 before jumping on the highway to head home to Brantford.

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By nobrainer (registered) | Posted April 11, 2011 at 16:11:35 in reply to Comment 62055

The city's own traffic department treats Cannon as the east bound side of the Main-Cannon expressway, King gets wide again once Cannon peters out, west of Queen, just watch the traffic going west on Cannon, south on Queen and then west on King (or else south on Dundurn to King).

But you know what, screw it, we can talk around this all day but instead you should just try and walk around like I do (I live right downtown, by choice), it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out pretty fast which streets are friendly to walk and which streets aren't, and what needs to change to make them better. Main is a nightmare, King is not so bad right downtown but gets pretty awful outside the core, Cannon is if possible even worse than Main, James use to suck but is a lot nicer these days with two way traffic and curb parking,,, just take off you're pundit had and WALK AROUND, you can't help but notice what's wrong with our streets when you have to live them.

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By Señor Advisor (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2011 at 18:54:00

¡Unidad, unidad, unidad!

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By jason (registered) | Posted April 11, 2011 at 21:31:35

Traffic routinely bears down this stretch at 50-60 km/hr.

HA! I wish. Try 60-75. All day. Every day.

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By banned user (anonymous) | Posted April 12, 2011 at 14:31:42 in reply to Comment 62072

comment from banned user deleted

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted April 12, 2011 at 21:30:14 in reply to Comment 62108

You're talking about the front of the wave.

What about those who join at the back and accelerate to get up to the front. You'd need to travel a little faster than 53-58 to do so. You can't maintain it the whole way, but it's easy to see lots of people doing 70+ catching up to the front.

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By SpaceMonkey (registered) | Posted April 11, 2011 at 21:42:00 in reply to Comment 62072


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By brendansimons (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 15:13:26 in reply to Comment 62073

I'll check my speedometer on the way home. Being less facetious though, I'm sure the city has measurements - someone should petition them.

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 12, 2011 at 11:02:57

King may narrow downtown, but being wider, synchronized and quite fast on either side puts a massive amount of pressure on it. And since it jumps from 2 lanes back to 3-4 lanes once it hits Catherine St., people tend to start "opening it up" before they even hit John.

Not the world's greatest highway, but not anything anyone would desire for the very middle of a shopping/employment/housing/entertainment district.

Look to Locke, Dundas or Concession. People expect jaywalking, and just don't drive there if they want to cut through town quickly. I keep my eyes peeled and my foot on the break pedal, because I expect people to cross. And it makes for some of the most enjoyable and walkable streetscapes in the city.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted April 12, 2011 at 14:13:32

You paint the intersection as being horribly lethal. How many accidents have been there in last year? 5 years? 10 years? How many people have been hurt or killed there? The girls did not get hit because that driver like most of the drivers are observant and really do care about pedestrians.

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By jonathan (registered) | Posted April 12, 2011 at 20:13:43 in reply to Comment 62105

According to the (un-dated) OGDI info...zero.

Despite that, I have to agree with Ryan; it's not a great intersection for pedestrians. But as that intersection is a funnel for anyone living between King and Mohawk to access the 403, there's a huge amount of traffic flowing through it. Balancing between pedestrian activity (which is quite large, due to the intersecting bus routes and nearby mall), and vehicular traffic, is a difficult task. The city's focus appears to have been on pedestrian safety through law, vs pedestrian safety through engineering...and completely ignoring pedestrian convenience. It does need to be addressed.

But the problem here begins a long, long ways away; solving this one will require focusing attention on a lot of other roads. Without changing the roads leading up to it, this is one intersection that is about as 'safe' as it's going to get. And, frankly, changing the roads leading up to it will solve the problem. Any attempt to focus on the intersection directly is merely a 'band-aid' solution.

And this is my issue with the whole, 'let's just lower the speed limit' idea. It's a band-aid solution. It doesn't solve the problem, which is, simply put, poorly engineered roadways focusing too much on cars, and not enough on pedestrians. Re-engineer the roads, and the concern will go away. Lower the speed limit, and you'll just be giving the police department a giant new source of revenue. The 50kph speed limit is indoctrined in provincial law. Heck, it may as well be national; the same law exists in every other province. You could travel to the most remote town in Ontario, and, assuming they have cars there, the speed limit in town will be 50kph. It's universal.

It's starting to change...a little. Seeing a 30/40 zone in the side streets is becoming more and more common. I've really no issue with this; it's a side road, not a through road. But through roads need to remain through roads. Drivers really do need to get to where they're going as well.

On the arteries, put buffer zones between the pedestrians and the roadways. Parking, greenspace, whatever. While there may be occasions where having 5 lanes of traffic is nice (like when Hamilton Place is putting on a major show, causing traffic to back up from there all the way back to the 403), most of the time, it's not necessary. On the sideroads, put speed humps in if you feel it necessary. Not a fan of bump-outs...but if they can be made to work, without screwing cyclists (like the bumpouts downtown), then by all means.

For the record...I'm really not a fan of the, 'well, there's not a lot of accidents there, so it must not be a problem' philosophy. Statistics may not show it, but anyone standing at that intersection can see how it's a problem.

Comment edited by jonathan on 2011-04-12 20:14:31

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted April 13, 2011 at 09:51:12 in reply to Comment 62148

I really do not see how this intersection caters to drivers coming off the hill heading to the 403. Aberdeen and Mohawk both have access to the 403 and are easier for most drivers. The intersection is very busy for the majority of the day. The fact that pedestrians are not allowed to cross on the east side should be changed.

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By Mr. Meister (anonymous) | Posted April 13, 2011 at 09:52:15 in reply to Comment 62176

Sorry that should read "...is not very busy for most of the day"

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By jonathan (registered) | Posted April 12, 2011 at 20:37:32 in reply to Comment 62148

One other thought. To me, applying a lower speed limit is no more 'engineering for safety' than putting up a 'pedestrians can't cross here' sign. It's not engineering. It's legislation. It just happens to be focused on drivers instead of pedestrians.

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By brendansimons (registered) | Posted May 29, 2012 at 15:19:31

Here's a funny data point: My drive home (from the East end of Burlington St to the West end of town) takes 15-20 minutes down Burlington-Cannon-Queen-King. It takes about 3 minutes more to go over the skyway and around the bay to the 403. I wager that if you closed ALL of the eastbound lanes through town, it would have almost no effect on commuters. So why are we sacrificing our community for lanes we don't need?

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