“It’s asking for death” says Nigel Pease, a Vancouver bus driver who regularly sees pedestrians darting across Main Street in heavy traffic.
The six-block stretch of Main just south of the Punjabi Market is home to a neighbourhood community centre, six busy bus stops, a handful of businesses and many residential homes.
Yet there is not a crosswalk to be found.
Every day, pedestrians can be seen hovering next to the parked cars on both sides of the 4-lane street, nervously looking left, then right, then left again. When a wide enough gap in the traffic appears they dash across, often in pursuit of the approaching bus.
If timing is tight, many won’t even wait for the gap.
Main Street residents may take solace in the fact that pedestrian safety is featured in this year’s municipal election platforms.
With Vancouver’s pedestrian fatality rate the highest in Canada, both Vision Vancouver and the NPA are promoting changes.
Some neighbourhoods have already seen significant investments in crosswalk technology. Since the South Main area has a relatively low number of actual collisions, it has remained off the political radar.
Concerns about about pedestrian safety began last July when the Vancouver Police Department counted nine pedestrian deaths, already surpassing the previous year’s number of six.
The city consulted accident statistics and in a July report (PDF) identified 10 “problem intersections,” located mainly in the Downtown Eastside – a neighborhood widely known for its high incidents of drug use, homelessness and crime.
The city’s first efforts at addressing pedestrian safety were to upgrade the existing crosswalks in the Downtown Eastside with countdown timers and cameras.
The studies seen by city hall suggested that alcohol and substance abuse contributed to most pedestrian collisions in this neighbourhood.
The Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users also successfully lobbied to introduce a 30km/h speed limit on the six-block stretch of East Hastings Street between Abbott and Jackson.
VPD Chief Constable Jim Chu did not support the new speed limit, saying that incidents in this neighbourhood are caused primarily by “pedestrians entering the roadway when unsafe”, rather than by fast-moving vehicles.
Studies also showed most collisions also occurred mid-block, despite the existence of eight signalized crosswalks in the six-block stretch.
In South Vancouver, a Main Street pedestrian starting at 51st Avenue heading south must walk six blocks just to get to the next signal.
Walking the talk
Since July, Police indicate that at least one more pedestrian has been killed and five more critically injured in Vancouver.
BC’s Lower Mainland tends to have the highest per capita pedestrian fatalities in the country. With the six in 2010, the rate was already 1.4 pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people, compared to 0.9 in Montreal and 0.8 in Toronto.
The City of Vancouver’s Transportation Plan in place since 1997 gives priority to pedestrians above both cyclists and cars.
City Councillor Heather Deal says that Vision Vancouver has been at the forefront of pedestrian safety initiatives since taking city hall in November 2008.
The July report was Vision’s first major update on pedestrian safety.
A foot in the door
In South Vancouver, residents like Sonya Avery are continually shocked at the way people will “play Russian Roulette with their lives” in places like Main Street and Southeast Marine Drive across from the city’s only Real Canadian Superstore.
Avery says she never dashes across Main, but then again she lives quite close to the fully signalized 57th Avenue intersection.
Others find themselves in a more difficult spot.
Student Vinay Giridhar admits to running across Main Street quite often to catch the bus at 54th Avenue.
He understands the danger but considers himself lucky that he’s usually out at night when traffic is slow.
Considering that the nearest crosswalk is barely visible in the distance, “we don’t really have a choice,” he says.
However Avery, Giridhar and their neighbours may have their voices heard after this week’s municipal election.
Both Vision Vancouver and the NPA have been touting a plan to form citizen advisory committees made up of pedestrians from all neighborhoods.
Mike Klassen, Fraser Street resident and NPA candidate for city council says “there are parts of the city that [still] just feel so incredibly inhospitable to people.”
He cites the southern stretches of Main Street, Knight Street and Kingsway as examples.
The NPA is proposing a standalone committee that is distinct from the city’s cycling advocates. Klassen says he believes pedestrian voices have been drowned out by the city’s recent bike lane debates.
“We need to even the playing field,” he says.
By comparison, Deal promotes Vision Vancouver’s plan to include pedestrians in a sub-committee alongside the existing committee of cyclists.
According to Deal, “the cyclists said they thought it would be a good idea.”