The Vancouver Park Board has unanimously approved a plan to widen the sidewalks along both sides of the Stanley Park Causeway to improve safety for cyclists and pedestrians. This route has been very dangerous for more than 30 years. Finally, something will be done to make it safer. This ambitious plan was partly in response to the death of a 61-year-old woman cyclist, Antonina Skoczylas, in 2013, which I wrote about here. It was also in response to all of the activism before and after this death.
On the negative side, it is sad that it takes a death as well as hundreds of hours of activism just to achieve safe cycling infrastructure – something that should be a basic right in an otherwise-advanced city like Vancouver. As Neil Arason writes in his excellent book, No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads, the reality is that Canada is lagging behind in making its streets safe for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists. As Arason writes:
“It is time for Canadians to embrace internationally recognized ways of thinking and enter an era in which the motor vehicle by-product of human carnage is relegated to history.”
That said, I have seen tremendous strides forward in safe cycling infrastructure in Vancouver over the last few years, with Gregor Robertson and his Vision Vancouver at the helm – read about their many achievements for safe cycling infrastructure here (Visionary Mayor Fights for Safe Bike Routes). It seems that every time I cycle somewhere different in the city, I see another improvement.
The improvement to the Stanley Park causeway is well overdue: my wife Maggie (Mrs. Average Joe Cyclist) could have been killed in exactly the same way thirty years ago. She was cycling across the Lions Gate Bridge (a little further north from the Stanley Park Causeway). Two young men were leaning against the railing, taking photos. Just as she got level with them, they both pushed off from the railing, without looking, and both collided with her, pushing her off the sidewalk and into the center lane of the bridge. Luckily, she was not hit by a bus or car.
Although it is really not wise to suddenly step backwards into a shared cycling/pedestrian lane, I do not blame the pedestrians. People do thoughtless things all the time. It’s just part of being human. The onus is on the authorities to provide safe cycling infrastructure (and safe pedestrian and motorist infrastructure). We are seeing more and more of that in Vancouver.
In the situation Maggie was in, on the Stanley Park Causeway, the fact that there was no railing dividing pedestrians and cyclists from fast moving traffic was ridiculous. What is more ridiculous is that that was thirty years ago, and to this day cyclists and pedestrians are in danger every day on that bridge – as you can see in the photo above, which I took yesterday. The cyclist has to pass the pedestrian, putting him a mere 6 inches away from falling into the path of traffic. If that pedestrian steps sideways, the cyclist will fall into the traffic. This is an example of what Arason refers to as “systems that rely upon perfect driving – by every driver at every moment in time.”
But human beings are not perfect all the time. Five minutes after I took that photo, two runners ran across the three lanes of traffic, straight into the path of a cyclist who was speeding up for the upcoming hill, on that tiny sidewalk. The cyclist braked and shouted that “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” thing that we cyclists tend to shout when we are shocked and frightened. Fortunately, the runners were young and fit, and managed to kind of bunny hop out of the path of the cyclist, so that he did not fall into the traffic. Unfortunately, I missed getting a photo of all this because I had turned to look at the beautiful cherry blossoms in Stanley Park. My annoyance at missing this great photo op was tempered by my relief that miraculously, no one got hurt. Below is the photo I took of a mom loving her baby under the cherry blossoms – while just a few feet behind me, three people were dicing with death.
Yes, the runners were just plain stupid. But the point is, everyone is stupid sometimes. Being stupid occasionally is part of being human. It would be nice if all human beings could be caring, sharing, intelligent and thoughtful all the time, but it’s not possible. But most of our infrastructure and systems expect us to be. Thanks to relying on systems that require human perfection, Arason points out that in the last decade in Canada, there has been no progress in reducing fatalities and major injuries for pedestrians and cyclists struck down by cars, trucks, and buses. Arason says in his book, No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads:
“We will never fully address the problems of car-related injury and death by focusing exclusively on endlessly imperfect human beings. … We have an understanding of how people actually behave; now we can start to design solutions based on how the world really works.”
It can be done. The Netherlands had a road crash fatality rate of 24.6 persons per 100,000 people in 1970. They made road safety a national priority, and reduced that number to just 4.0 in 2011. There are already many safety measures available that work automatically by design, and depend less on making people behave differently. The planned design for the Stanley Park Causeway is surely an example of one such safety measure. It is designed with the safety of pedestrians and cyclists prioritized. It does not require cyclists and pedestrians to behave perfectly at all times in order to stay alive. For example, the stupid behavior I witnessed yesterday, with two people running across the Causeway and almost causing a cyclist to fall into the traffic, will be impossible once there are safety railings on both sides of the road.
On most existing vehicle bridges, it is very clear that pedestrians and cyclists are an afterthought – if in fact they were thought of at all. This leads to situations where pedestrians and cyclists have to take their lives in their hands simply to go over a bridge. In the case of the Stanley Park Causeway, for more than three decades, we have trusted to perfect human behavior to ensure that cyclists and pedestrians can safely share a narrow strip of sidewalk directly adjacent to several lanes of fast-moving traffic. Yet we all know that perfect human behavior all the time is not possible. From this analysis, it is clear that the death of that woman cyclist in 2013 was no accident at all.
Instead, her death was a predictable outcome of ridiculously dangerous infrastructure. It was not a question of WHETHER someone would die. It was just a question of WHO and WHEN.
No wonder that the family of Antonina Skoczylas is suing the Ministry of Transportation, the bus company and the driver involved, as well as two pedestrians who were walking along the shared pathway at the time. I cannot comment on the bus driver or the pedestrians, because I did not witness the event. But again, the point is, even if they did not behave perfectly, why was there no infrastructure to ensure safety in the event of human error?
Fortunately, the plan to provide safe cycling infrastructure will be executed this year. The sidewalk on the eastern side (where the fatal accident happened) will be widened to 3.6 m to create two lanes for northbound cyclists, and one lane for pedestrians walking in both directions, as shown in this graphic. This is going to make things so much safer for the many cyclists whose commuting route includes crossing the Lions Gate bridge. I am so happy about this! I am looking forward to posting BEFORE and AFTER photos in a few months time!
The key in this plan is that the cycling lanes are physically separated from the car lanes. I believe that separated bike lanes are a key part of safe cycling infrastructure – read this post about the 3 main reasons why we need separated bike lanes. In London, there have been several incidents where cyclists sharing lanes with cars and lorries have been crushed to death. The city has recognized that safe infrastructure must be provided, and work has started on ambitious bike superhighways that will provide separated bike lanes for cyclists in the heart of London. Bikes already make up 24 per cent of all rush-hour traffic in central London, and that number is sure to grow once the bike superhighways are built.
But getting back to Vancouver: the western sidewalk of the Stanley Park Causeway will be widened to 2.1 meters and restricted to southbound cyclists only. There will also be places where it will be wide enough to create a passing lane – pretty much essential, given the different speeds at which cyclists of different cycling abilities can manage to get over Lions Gate Bridge. Pedestrian access will be restricted with signage. I hope that works – the lane will be too narrow to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians.
Best of all, both sides will have a metal railing to separate cyclists and pedestrians from cars. The only thing that would make this better is to have a railing between pedestrians and cyclists as well, and to enforce sticking to your own lane with serious fines. Pedestrians routinely complain about cyclists in the pedestrian lanes. As a pedestrian, I have certainly experienced cyclists being aggressive. And as a cyclist, I know that pedestrians walk in cycling paths all the time.
In the photo above, the bike lane is entirely occupied by pedestrians. But it’s not actually the pedestrians’ fault. Note that there is no pedestrian crossing. Therefore, of course the pedestrians use the bike lane – and once again, a lack of infrastructure sets up the potential for altercations and accidents.
We just need safe infrastructure for the different kinds of traffic: on foot, on bikes, and in cars. I fear being hit by a car because I don’t want to be hurt; I fear hitting a pedestrian because I don’t want to hurt someone else.
BC’s transportation ministry hopes to complete the upgrades to the Stanley Park Causeway this year.
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