Hit the streets, then fix them

Evaluating public consultations for the City’s new road-safety plan

The signalized intersection at Maryland Street and Westminster Avenue in West Broadway is part of a major artery for automobile traffic, despite the fact that less than half of the neighbourhood’s residents drive. (Photo by Thomas Pashko)

Sixty-three per cent of West Broadway residents don’t drive a car.

Or rather, even if they can drive, they primarily bike, walk and take public transportation. And yet, there is an incredibly busy and dangerous traffic artery that slices through the neighbourhood: a thoroughfare that is simply not designed with the neighbourhood’s residents in mind. Almost every day, Jacob Nikkel sees someone have a near-death experience trying to cross that thoroughfare in the legally sanctioned manner.

Nikkel is the community safety outreach co-ordinator for the West Broadway Community Organization. He has seen Winnipeg’s city council prioritize the convenience of cars over community transportation needs for years.

“We know how to create safer and more efficient transportation. The evidence and the best practices are clear: it looks like better public transportation, safe vehicle speeds and better infrastructure for people on foot and bike,” Nikkel says in a statement to The Uniter. “We can’t keep letting concerns over losing a few on-street parking spots, or car speeds being slowed down a bit, to keep overriding community demands for safer streets.”

So all things considered, Nikkel is optimistic about the City’s Road Safety Strategic Action Plan, which he says reflects many of the community’s transportation needs.

The City of Winnipeg is currently in the final consultation phase of the strategic action plan: a project that aims to determine the direction of road-safety development in the city based on data, public input and stakeholder group input. Their outreach has included collaborating with the WRENCH to provide bike tune-ups to cyclists participating in pop-up consultations.

Anders Swanson, the executive director of Winnipeg Trails Association, has been involved in some of the stakeholder meetings and says the City needs to take responsibility for their past decisions before they can truly commit to a new direction for road safety.

“We know what needs to be done in terms of the nuts and bolts, but we need for somebody to say ‘this was wrong, it can’t continue, and we’re sorry,’” he says. “The details in a road-safety plan are less important than that first step.”

Swanson says the current state of road safety in Winnipeg is “a systematic repression of certain peoples’ right to use space,” and that the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates just how much the City has failed this test of equity in transportation.

“The people who were systematically discriminated against with barriers to their transportation are most impacted when their transportation options are at risk,” he says. When people began to be cautious about taking buses due to the spread of COVID-19, there wasn’t widespread bike infrastructure, and the City didn’t rush to produce it.

Compared to public transportation, cycling, and walking, Swanson explains that car infrastructure is a user-pay system (meaning that it’s costly for users to be involved in), and so there was no safe transportation option for many Winnipegers. “When you compare what people want to do versus what they can do, it comes down to road safety,” he says.

The first round of consultations was intended as an initial safety assessment, while the second shaped the City’s longterm and short-term visions and goals for road safety. The third will help to determine focus areas and what specific actions the City will undertake.

After the first two rounds of consultations, the City has drafted a document of potential safety policy actions that apply to five subjects within road systems: signalized intersections (meaning intersections controlled by electronic signals like traffic lights and pedestrian crossing signals), pedestrians, cyclists, speed and road-safety culture.

Nikkel and Swanson both emphasize that understanding road-safety issues as cultural problems created by policy makers rather than individual drivers is important, and Swanson stresses that the city should address correcting that culture outside of the police ticketing system.

Rebecca Peterniak, the community traffic engineer with the City of Winnipeg, says the focus on signalized intersections is a result of the unique-for-Winnipeg focus on urban road safety in this project.

“This is the first time that Winnipeg is developing a hyper-localized road safety plan for the city,” she says. “In the past, we’ve followed and partnered with the province on a larger-scale provincial plan, but this took a much deeper dive into the key issues in Winnipeg and the customized solutions we’re looking for.”

She says that, because of this focus, the project has drawn on Winnipeg-specific collision data, City of Winnipeg-specific policies and practices and has a focus on stakeholders local to the city. While she says the focus on pedestrians, cyclists and speed are common in both urban and rural road-safety projects, the focus on signalized intersections is much bigger in the cities.

That’s because most collisions with pedestrians happen at intersections. Brian Pincott, the executive director of Vélo Canada Bikes and a former Calgary city councillor who advocated for bike infrastructure, notes that most vehicle collisions with pedestrians also happen when the pedestrian has the right of way.

Pincott also cites studies in other cities that found prohibiting right turns on red lights can reduce these collisions, and that lowering speed limits may prevent injuries and fatalities from cars and have minimal impacts on total travel time. So with facts like these, he wonders why the City is undertaking a public consultation in the first place.

“These actions have all been done in one way or another somewhere else,” he says. While Pincott recognizes that public consultation is important, he says it can also be inappropriate, and that, in this case, it may create unnecessary debate about policies with well-established results. “You can ‘public engage’ things to death,” he says.

Pincott also wishes the potential actions were more ambitious.

“The big piece that is missing is for the road that we build tomorrow: how do we make it safe for everybody? The assumption that the City goes in with is that you build a road that works for cars, that is most efficient for cars, and then you try to make it safer for everybody else, as opposed to (making) it safe for everybody,” he says. “I just wish they would aim higher.”

Residents of Winnipeg can review the actions being considered and complete the survey until Sept. 30 at engage.winnipeg.ca/roadsafetyplan/survey_tools/winnipeg-road-safety-focus-areas1

Published in Volume 76, Number 3 of The Uniter (September 23, 2021)

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