Protecting Pedestrians on Langley’s Streets (Part I)

If you live in a typical Township of Langley home – whether its single family, townhome or apartment – and you want to walk to your job, shopping, cafes, etc., there is a good chance that you’ll cross intersections where your life is on the line: unfinished sidewalks, impassable walkways, and/or prohibitively inconvenient distances. While some may claim that this is just the “growing pains” of living in an (unphased planning) development area – I beg to differ: the most challenging areas of the Township of Langley are often where development is complete, but just poorly planned.

walkingdangerously
Illustration Posted by Johnny Xaro

This illustration highlights my point about cities designed around vehicle movement (shown here) over people movement better than just words. Some of it is unavoidable, but it almost seems to me like a self-fulfilling cycle. There is no transit or way to walk to an area so we need cars. The more cars we need, the more roads we need, and so on, until most of our public space is reserved for cars alone.

-Johnny Xaro

Setting the Stage: The Useful Walk

Building a truly walkable neighbourhood means that the majority of our daily needs are accessible by foot. I’ve discussed a number of ways that this can be achieved, including road design, mixed use buildings, proper parking planning and finally, great transit. These first four elements are what Jeff Speck calls “The Useful Walk” in his 2012 book, Walkable City. Yes, I am sure that as long as you stick to the delightful greenways throughout the Township of Langley, you’ll probably feel safe, but they often don’t really lead anywhere useful. I know, I know, walking for its own sake it “useful”, but you understand what I mean – the lack of utility in such a walk still forces more and more cars, per capita, onto our streets, which means more demand for more lanes, more parking, yet we still have more congestion, traffic and, yes, pedestrian injuries and death.

The Evidence

I currently live in the Jeffries Brook subdivision (part of the sexily named Southwest Gordon Estates neighbourhood), but I’ve also lived in Routley (also in Willougby), Murrayville, Fort Langley, and Walnut Grove. As a REALTOR, I do business in every part of the Township which involves a lot of driving and walking around neighbourhoods. I point this out because I have a great advantage to have had to get to know and compare the ins and outs of subdivisions of all Langley’s neighbourhoods in a way that others wouldn’t. I also visit other cities a lot. I find myself in municipalities from Vancouver to Chilliwack almost weekly.

pedestrian accidents 2013-2017
Pedestrian-related accidents from 2013-2017, ICBC

When the anecdotal evidence seems to weigh against certain cities compared to others, I like to see what the data suggests. Of course even the most walkable cities are going to have pedestrian-related accidents. Wherever you mix cars and pedestrians, something can happen. It doesn’t have to be the drivers fault either. Many pedestrian related accidents are entirely the fault of the walker. Of course, smart pedestrian-oriented street design can limit these encounters. For example, if you have no sidewalks on one side of the street and no intersections, isn’t it likely that pedestrians are more likely to jaywalk to where they feel safer, ironically putting themselves in greater danger?

The facts from ICBC suggest that Langley is not a pedestrian-friendly municipality. Not only are people not walking, those who do are in danger. The Langleys (City and Township) had 235 pedestrian related accidents involving a car according to ICBC from 2013-2017. That is 1/3 of the number of similar accidents that happen in downtown Vancouver, despite downtown Vancouver having many more times the number of pedestrians and cars.

The most dangerous neighbourhood in the Township of Langley to walk in is Walnut Grove. The most dangerous street is 88th Avenue (from 202nd to 216th Street) and the most dangerous intersection is 88th Avenue and Walnut Grove Drive. There are not opinion – they are facts. Note that this is a community, a street, and an intersection that is established, sidewalks are built, and fully “laned” as per the suburban street design that continues to be promoted in Willoughby. It’s therefore no surprise that Willoughby is the second most dangerous community for pedestrians (albeit far behind Walnut Grove despite the similarities in population). 200th Street is the 2nd more dangerous street (between 86th to 66th Avenue) and tied for the most dangerous intersection is 200th Street and 72nd Avenue. The most dangerous streets and intersections in Willoughby are those that are fully completed, built out and have sidewalks.

See Dangerous Street Rankings Here

Yet beyond these sort of facts are what we can’t see but can only experience. It is easy to see that there is a significant difference in pedestrian activity between a city like Vancouver and a suburban town like Langley. But what about the difference within? Whether its the weekend or weekday, Fort Langley, with a population a fraction of the size of Walnut Grove and Willoughby, has an exponential number of pedestrians in not only its commercial core, but also throughout Bedford Landing and many of the suburban subdivisons close to Glover – even though the latter don’t have any sidewalks.

While some see Fort Langley as a “failure” because it can take longer than 3 minutes to find parking and they can’t park right in front of their destination, most people find Fort Langley a charming area that offers a pleasant walk from one end to the other with stores that range from the essential to the eclectic. It is ironic that one can easily spend as much time or more parking and walking from a parking lot, behind cars, to go to just one strip mall or big box store in Willowbrook.

What you may not know is that despite the heavy pedestrian activity, as well as a fair bit of car traffic, it is one of the safest communities for pedestrians: only 5 pedestrian-related accidents in 5 years. 2 of those happened at 96th Avenue and Glove and 1 at Mavis and Glover – two intersections that drivers highly complain about, yet are relatively some of the safest intersections in the entire Township. The fact is that people walk not only where it is useful, as per the four articles linked above, but also where they feel SAFE.

How to Protect Pedestrians

So if I’ve already noted that pedestrian safety is not related to finished sidewalks or roads (208th Street in Walnut Grove from 87th to 96th Street is 3x more dangerous than 208th Street from 84th to 68th Ave), what makes a street safer for pedestrians? One way is to just keep scaring them off and keep people from walking. That seems to be the goal in the latest Township of Langley plan in Williams. Of course, you’ll still end up having at least some mixture of pedestrians and cars as you do throughout the Township and my prediction will be that if Williams is built as planned, it will end up with at least 2 of the most dangerous intersections in Langley at 80th Avenue and 216th as well as 80th Avenue and 212th Avenue. However, with the right design, this can be avoided.

“Will the pedestrian survive?… Will potential walkers feel adequately protected against being run over, enough so that they make the choice to walk?”… it is essential, and also so often needlessly botched by the people who build our cities. These failures stem from two principal sources: a lack of concern for the pedestrian and a fundamental misunderstanding within the professions about what makes streets safe. The first cause is political, and can be overcome through advocacy. The second cause is technical, and can be overcome by setting the record straight”

-Jeff Speck, Walkable City

Smaller Blocks = Safer Streets

Right off the bat, Jeff Speck states something not so obvious: cities with smaller blocks are safer. While the utility and convenience of smaller blocks makes sense for those who understand the advantages of a grid plan – but what makes it safer? I’ll let Jeff Speck explain it in his succinct fashion:

“…bigger blocks mean fewer streets and thus bigger streets. Presuming a similar traffic volume, a city with twice the block size requires each street to hold twice as many driving lanes. The typical street in downtown Portland, with its 200 ft per side blocks holds 2 lanes of traffic. The typical street in downtown Salt Lake City, with blocks over 600 ft per side, holds 6 lanes of traffic. And 6 lane streets are much more dangerous than 2 lane streets.”

-Jeff Speck, Walkable City

He then goes on to quote an extensive study by Wesley Marshall and Norman Garrick from the University of Connecticut who analyzed over 130,000 car crashes over 9 years.

california-saferoads

After dividing the cities into “safer” and “less safe” cities, they found that the most predictive indicator of pedestrian injury and death was none other than block size. The safest cities had blocks of 18 acres in average size, whereas the less safe cities averaged 34 acres per block. A doubling of block size translated into a tripling of fatalities. The average block size of the residential area of the adopted Williams NCP plan for Willoughby is 38 acres. Down the road in the Smith NCP, the average block size will be 10 acres at build out – why such a difference from the same planning team, I don’t know.

Big-block, multilane systems result in streets that are both harder to cross and easier to speed on. – Jeff Speck

Speck goes on to acknowledge that the greatest difference is seen when one travel lane is expanded to two travel lanes in the same direction. He says this turns drivers towards a “road racer” mindset where speedy drivers feel the need to pass slower drivers. It is not a surprise, therefore, that Langley’s most dangerous intersections are all where 2 major arterial roads meet. The faster we drive, the less time there is to navigate obstacles and the more likely that a pedestrian related accident will result in death. Pedestrians obviously aren’t the only ones affected by this. The most dangerous car accidents happen on these same intersections.

I will conclude this section about blocks by pointing out that I’ve written about road diets, grid plans and smaller blocks before with matters unrelated to pedestrian safety. 4 lane roads have been proven to be less efficient for divers, due to the phenomenon of induced demand (increasing the number of cars on the road), and lack of local access that causes such congestion.

Reduce Long Left Turn Lanes

Before I have yet another former Mayor telling me that I shouldn’t speak up about this stuff because I’m not a professional planner, I will continue to qualify that none of these ideas are my own. I take what professional planners are writing about and address how today’s best planners would apply it to Langley, hoping that someone is listening and maybe we’ll have some of these planners come help us out.

I inserted this preamble because this next solution is something I obviously would have never thought about. Most of us recognize turning at an intersection is the usual suspect for any accident, whether pedestrian related or not. Long left turn lanes are meant to make the left travel lane more efficient. The problem is that in their obsession with auto-oriented efficiency, left turn lanes end up in many places they aren’t needed and much longer than necessary. What happens with this is that we end up with street networks designed around left turn lanes, turning 4 lane roads into 5 or 6 lanes, and eating up potential parking spaces, doing away with pedestrian-friendly boulevards, reducing sidewalk spaces and/or eliminating bicycle lanes. The long left turn lanes also speed up traffic on already speedy corridors. Think about that list of dangerous intersections again: all offer long left turn lanes on 4 lane arterials, turning 4 lanes into 6.

200-80-left

One of my greatest fears is the future of 80th Avenue and 200th Street. While I am a fan of the new Latimer Heights development 2-4 blocks to the North, the combination of this massive master-planned community, plus the amenities of a new elementary school, the Langley Events Centre, a possible future arts centre, the middle school and high school with one of the longest left turn lanes in the Lower Mainland on Langley’s busiest arterial road will turn to tragedy. While I understand the desire for automobile efficiency, are the future pedestrians of this area not worth a slightly less efficient turn lane by cutting it back a bit? While I wouldn’t be surprised that this was done for when the Vancouver Giants came to the LEC, is a 235 meter left turn lane really necessary if the evidence shows that this is actually a safety concern?

While I can already feel the pitchforks at my back, decrying how horrible of a turn that is – both at 80th and later at 72nd – these will be inefficient turns no matter what because the blocks are so large (see issue above). There is not a single Southbound right or left turn between 80th and 72nd and the sole Northbound right turn lane at 76th Avenue just opened up a few months ago – which is really at this time only used by those going to the two schools. The problem is that due to very poor street planning in Willoughby, 76th Avenue is likely going to be the only intersection in that stretch. When/if this becomes a full intersection, it should lighten the turning load at both 80th and 72nd, but not nearly enough.

Speed: The Biggest Threat to Pedestrians

Many people believe that crime is the biggest threat to pedestrian safety. For decades, this was actually the reason why we didn’t build tree-lined streets. The thought was that bad guys could hide behind trees.

We now know this isn’t the case and in fact the greatest threat to pedestrians is fast moving traffic. Despite this, traffic engineers, according to Jeff Speck, perpetually design streetscapes to promote higher speed traffic.

This approach is so counterintuitive that it strains credulity: engineers design streets for speeds well above the posted limit, so that speeding drivers will be safe – a practice that, of course, causes the very speeding it hopes to protect against.

-Jeff Speck, Walkable City

The most dangerous intersections in the Township of Langley, again, are those where two 4 or more lane arterial roads are meeting (especially 4 lane plus left turn lanes). Engineers across North America have been designing streets for optimum higher design speeds, which, when combined with the priority of de-congesting traffic has led to 12-14 feet wide lanes, despite most cars being under 6 feet wide and the historical lane width rarely being wider than 10 feet.

“…if highways have twelve-foot lanes, and we are comfortable negotiating them at seventy miles per hour, wouldn’t we feel the same way on a city street of the same dimensions? Yet in the bizarre parallel universe of the traffic engineer, no such relationship exists: motorists will drive at the speed limit, or slightly above, no matter what sort of drag strip we lay in their path.”

-Jeff Speck, Walkable City

Of course, just my like myself, Jess Speck doesn’t want you to take his word for it, and refers to a University of Maryland and Texas A&M study to back this up:

“Considered broadly, the fundamental shortcoming of conventional traffic safety theory is that it fails to count for the moderating role of human behaviour on crash incidence. Decisions to… widen specific roadways to make them more forgiving are based on the assumption that in so doing, human behaviour will remain unchanged. And it is precisely this assumption-that human behaviour can be treated as a constant, regardless of design – that accounts for the failure of conventional safety practices.”

-Reid Ewing & Eric Dumbaugh, “The Built Environment and Traffic Safety: A Review of Empirical Evidence”, 2009

An additional study by Rutgers professor Robert Noland outlines the actual cost of life of these decisions: increased lane widths account for 900 additional traffic fatalities in the United States each year. This doesn’t include injuries.

In the Congress for New Urbanism’s planning manual, Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares, they recommend that street lanes be ten or eleven feet wide. Jeff Speck laments that they included the word “eleven”.

While the recently adopted Williams NCP makes no mention of lane sizes, the much more pedestrian-friendly Smith NCP that was adopted the year prior outlines that local roads will have approximately 10 foot lanes, most others will be between 11 and 11.5 feet, meanwhile, of course, the finished 208th street is still proposed to have 6 lanes of 12 foot lanes.

IMG_9335

I live in the partially built out Southwest Gordon Estate neighbourhood one block away from 202B Street. This plan, like the Williams NCP, did not explicitly state road lane widths. 202B Street, which connects the Langley Events Centre, Peter Ewert Middle School and RE Mountain Secondary school to thousands of residential single family and townhomes, and to the shopping at 64th Avenue, offers 13 foot lane roads. 202B and 66th Avenue is unsurprisingly recorded as one of the most dangerous intersections in Langley. The area between 72nd Avenue and 66th Avenue is almost completely devoid of pedestrian activity despite the sidewalk.

If you walk down 202B Street or 200th Street or 72nd Avenue in Willoughby or 88th Avenue in Walnut Grove or Fraser Highway in Murrayville, or the Langley Bypass, they aren’t pleasant walks. Pedestrians don’t feel safe because they know they are second-class citizens when its between them and the car. These streets, and many more throughout the Township of Langley, are designed to move drivers as fast as possible without much care or consideration of pedestrians. In part two we will look at some unique mechanisms to force drivers to be more aware, why so many of Langley’s completed sidewalks are empty, and how to make intersections safer for pedestrians.

While Langley has shown it can make great strides towards walkability in plans like Smith NCP and Aldergrove Core Area Plans, the backwards Williams NCP shows us that this commitment is inconsistent.

Part II:

Complicated Streets are Safe Streets

Sidewalk Size Doesn’t Matter

Rethinking Intersections

 

 

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