Protecting Pedestrians on Langley’s Streets (Part II): The Myth of Sidewalk Safety

Last week I introduced how Langley’s auto-oriented development has infringed on walkability through the lack of safety. Specifically, I uncovered three issues: how large city blocks are the greatest indicator of lack of pedestrian safety, the problem of unnecessarily long left turn lanes and how engineering for speed has created an unsafe environment for pedestrians.

In part II of “Protecting Pedestrians on Langley’s Streets”, I take a deeper look into some very counter-intuitive measures to promote pedestrian safety, including “complicated streets”, better intersections, and finally, the reality of sidewalk safety. These measures are borrowed from the top urban planners in the world, including Jeff Speck and Charles Schwartz. By applying their extensive practical and theoretical work to Langley’s neighbourhoods, I am convinced we can make our community a safer, more walkable Township.

Complicated Streets are Safe Streets

“Each and every aspect of the built environment sends its own cue to drivers and too many of those cues say ‘speed up.’ Most of them, unfortunately, are the law.”

-Jeff Speck, Walkable City

The commercial core of Fort Langley is unlike almost every neighbourhood of the Township of Langley. Especially on weekends, there is a mixture of bustling pedestrian activity, cyclists, and drivers. Yet as we learned in Part I, Fort Langley remains the safest neighbourhood in the Township to be a pedestrian – and that’s including the residential areas with no sidewalks at all (more on that later).

Part of Fort Langley’s success is due to what I call “Complicated Streets.” Fort Langley has very few lighted intersections, yet plenty of short blocks in its grid network. It has some charming trees on both sides of Glover as you come into town. There are many sights  that one might think may distract drivers: including the walking pylons we call pedestrians, cars parked on both sides of the road, a road pinch at Glover Road and Mary Street, and not to mention the regular interesting goings-on within the bustling Fort Langley. Additionally, in Bedford Landing, which was built within the last generation of development, a design of the commercial network is emulated in the residential neighbourhood.

Whether built purposely or not with pedestrians in mind, these are examples of complicated streets. They are cues to the driver to “slow down – be aware”. You can’t speed through Fort Langley. The historical reason for this is obvious. When Fort Langley’s road system was built, there were no motorists: just horses and carriages – literally.

Lighted intersections are often cues to speed up, trust or beat the system: recall that all of the most dangerous intersections in Langley’s are lighted intersections where at least 4 lanes connect on all sides and the roads are intended obviously for drivers, not pedestrians. The number of non-lighted intersections, bustling pedestrian activity, parked cars, all cue the Fort Langley driver to slow down, inadvertently creating a safer walking environment.

“Welcome to the world of risk homeostasis, a very real place that exists well outside the blinkered gaze of the traffic engineering profession. Risk homeostasis describes how people automatically adjust their behavior to maintain a comfortable level of risk…

…the safest roads are those that feel the least safe, demanding more attention from drivers.”

-Jeff Speck, Walkable City

Speck points out another way to complicate streets in favour of pedestrians you might not think of. While he uses an example from Philadelphia in his book – we have our own, again in Fort Langley, at an intersection of two arterial roads: 88th Avenue (ironically the most dangerous road in Langley in the Walnut Grove area) and Glover Road. Despite being a fair distance from the commercial core, this intersection is used by many pedestrians, especially students who attend Fort Langley Elementary and Langley Fine Arts. The reason there are no pedestrian-related accidents: the angle of the intersection. Instead of having 4 lanes on each side in a typically perpendicular cross section at 90 degree angles, there are 2 lanes on each side at a angle that looks to be around 55-60 degrees (don’t quote me on this – I’m sure someone can figure it out).

glover88
88th Ave & Glover Road in Fort Langley

As a driver, these odd angles naturally slow you down. This creates a tangibly safer intersection for pedestrians.

“This lesson has yet to crack through the ossified shell of the mainstream engineering profession. In most cities, intersections are required to meet at ninety degrees or close to it. Staggered intersections, great for slowing speeds, are strictly forbidden. Five-ways, common in older places, are also off the table…

…The shape of the intersection is half the story. The other half is the visibility at that intersection, and the second rule that foils the best attempts of city planners to make memorable places: the sight-triangle requirement. This standard mandates that all vertical objects such as buildings and trees maintain a minimum distance from street corners, so that drivers can see around them. Such a requirement makes perfect sense in a world in which design can’t affect behavior. But on planet Earth, it causes speeding at intersection.”

-Jeff Speck, Walkable City

Now think back to 88th and Glover and all the trees. Or Glover Road and Mavis, where there happens to be pretty large new building and a light signal on just one side. Compare these two “complicated” intersections with the clear, but dangerous, 88th Ave and Walnut Grove Drive or 200th and 72nd. The “complication” of the street design forces our behaviour: speed up or slow down.

Rethinking Intersections

Speaking of intersections, we must address another counter-intuitive measure: signalled intersections. Whether or not there are any accidents at a local intersection, residents often call for signalled intersections where none are needed. Many people believe signalled intersections leads to safer streets. As we’ve already shown with the evidence as well as the reasoning behind it, this simple isn’t the case, in fact, it’s downright false.

Push-buttons almost always mean that the automobile dominates, as they are typically installed in conjunction with a new signal timing in which crossing times are shorter and less frequent. Far from empowering walkers, the push button turns them into second-class citizens; pedestrians should never have to ask for a light.

-Jeff Speck, Walkable City

Glover & Mavis: Safety in Complication
Glover & Billy Brown: No sidewalks, no problem

I know I keep picking on the same intersections, but the anecdotal evidence continues to be too perfect to ignore. Glover and Mavis, although often decried as unsafe due to the one blinking light and frequency of semi-trucks, is actually extremely safe if we believe ICBC accident reports. Meanwhile the push buttons at Walnut Grove Drive/88th Ave and 200th/72nd force pedestrians to run for their lives with quick walk times and motorists racing to make right and left turn lanes.

The most dangerous intersection in Langley: 88th and Walnut Grove Drive

If you aren’t already scratching your head at all the apparent chaos I’m promoting, it’s not going to get any better.

As drivers we all love to turn right on red, but this is simply a way to increase high speed traffic flow at the expense of the pedestrian. The only places in Langley that I can think of where a right turn isn’t allowed on red is when there is a change in traffic pattern directly after the intersection, such as at 203rd Street and 66th Avenue (where the 203rd/208th overpass meets the Langley Bypass).

“…the widespread American practice of allowing cars to ‘turn right on red’ at intersections is unthinkable in cities that want to invite people to walk and bicycle.”

-Jan Gehl, Cities For People

Turning right on red is banned throughout the Netherlands – a nation known for its walkability, despite it’s weather not being unlike our own. Don’t get me wrong, while I love the idea of a walking utopia, I don’t believe we need to ban turning right on red throughout Langley. I do, however, favour the idea for specific pedestrian-oriented areas, especially commercial cores such as Fort Langley, downtown Aldergrove, Willoughby Town Centre, and even Willowbrook. We should also look at the intersections experiencing high pedestrian hit counts and consider a trial of banning right hand turns on those intersections, especially where schools are nearby.

72-200
72nd Ave & 200th Street: Cross if you dare (check out the illegal right turn by the silver Flex)

Obviously, right-on-green and left-on-green are even more dangerous to pedestrians since both the driver and the pedestrian are given the okay to share the same space. Since we can’t “ban” either of these procedures, one innovation in Washington, D.C. has proven to save lives: the leading pedestrian interval” gives a 3 second head start to pedestrian, giving the right of way to the pedestrian before the racing motorist. Jeff Speck notes that this procedure has an added benefit for pedestrians: not only is it safer, but it is also more convenient. Walking in Willowbrook and Willoughby South, you’ll notice that the pedestrian signals are delayed well after cars are given the go ahead to turn left, another signal that Langley is an automobile-dominated neighbourhood.

4way
The “lowly” 4-way Stop with assisted light (40th Ave & 224th St)

Finally, the safest design for pedestrians – as well as motorists – is the classic 4-way stop. Traffic engineers who pray to the gods of traffic flow may loathe this, but this is the discussion that needs to be balanced: should safety always take a back seat to flow? Unfortunately, with the Township of Langley’s complete lack of priority given to local roads, favouring the speedy collector and arterial roads even throughout most residential areas, 4 way stops have almost been completely relegated to rural areas in the Township. Although 4 way stops are obviously not well suited for high traffic areas, there are many fully lighted low traffic intersections throughout the Township of Langley where a 4 way stop  would have been more than enough. Not only would these areas be more pedestrian-friendly, it would also be safer for motorists and save the taxpayer money. Unfortunately, we have become so accustomed to the use of lighted intersections, we really don’t know better.

“What if, instead of simply telling drivers when to go, we asked them to think for themselves? Drivers slow down, but never have to wait for more than a few seconds, and pedestrians and bicyclists are generally waved through first.”

-Jeff Speck, Walkable City

68-194-surrey
Roundabout at 68th Ave & 194th Street in Surrey
murrayville5corners
Murrayville’s 5 Corners: roundabouts can even handle 2 arterial roads meeting a 5th

Speck admits that 4 way stops don’t fit the busiest intersections, but he states, rightly so, that the majority of our municipalities spend millions of dollars on signal lighted intersections where none are necessary. Even the endorsement of roundabouts would go a long way in finding a balance between pedestrian safety and traffic flow that is rarely implemented. Roundabouts can slow down traffic yet continue the flow and have found immense success throughout Metro Vancouver. The first step, of course, may be to not have the people getting paid to engineer and build the streets to also be making the master plans for the community.

Sidewalk Size Doesn’t Matter

IMG_7068(1)
Overly-wide, unused sidewalk on the new University Drive

Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of urban design when it comes to pedestrian mobility are sidewalks. As Jeff Speck aptly puts it: “sidewalk design has almost nothing to do with pedestrian safety”.

“What makes a sidewalk safe is not its width, but whether it is protected by a line of parked cars that form a barrier of steel between the pedestrian and the roadway. Have you ever tried sidewalk dining on a sidewalk without curbside parking?… Whether they are two feet away or ten feet away, nobody wants to sit – or walk – directly against a line of cars travelling at sixty feet per second. On-street parking also allows traffic down, since drivers are wary of other cars potentially pulling into the roadway.”

-Jeff Speck, Walkable City

 

IMG_7116
“Protected” sidewalks on Billy Brown Road in Fort Langley

The Township of Langley provides many appropriate comparisons for this. There is little difference in the distance between Fort Langley’s commercial core and Bedford Landing compared to Willoughby Town Centre and the majority of Yorkson’s residential apartments and townhomes that have completed sidewalks – yet the difference in pedestrian activity is a stark contrast. Despite completed sidewalks to the North of 80th Avenue and through the condo complexes as well as along 80th Avenue to the east of 208th Street, there is no on street parking and very little pedestrian activity despite the density and proximity to retail.

Just as with the example shown on Glover Road, Billy Brown Road that services Bedford Landing offers “protected sidewalks” by having parallel parked cars alongside the road. Pedestrians have a real and perceived sense of safety. If Bedford Landing was built in Willoughby, Billy Brown Road would have been 4 lanes with no parking – looking a lot like this:

80thave
80th Ave: Unused Sidewalks, Need for Road diet

In an area where the lack of parking has become a firestorm of controversy, it’s almost painful to drive down 80th Avenue and see right hand travel lanes no one uses and no one is allowed to park on. It’s even more of a shame that this added parking would, if the experts are to be believed, actually make pedestrians feel safer and induce more people in Yorkson to actually use the sidewalks that are there. This easy-to-fix example is just one more example of a municipality run by traffic engineers as opposed to progressive urban planners.

Jeff Speck also points out that any benefit of sidewalks are actually eliminated by designs made to convenience drivers, such as drive thru’s, drop-offs and drive up curbs (especially where you find front-loading single family homes – what’s the point of a sidewalk that is used more often by cars than pedestrians:). “If a city has rear alleys [Brad’s note: or rear-loading lane ways in residential areas], there is no justification for providing businesses additional access at the curb” expresses Speck.

So while sidewalk advocates may wave their pitchforks at me, take a look at the data. If safety, not politics, is what is truly important, let’s make sure the facts, and our interpretation of them, are considered more carefully than the political motivations.

Conclusion

In two parts full of counter-intuitive measures, I hope it is apparent that our status quo way of building gives immense priority to motorists with very little care for pedestrian safety. The ICBC stats prove that we are one of the most dangerous communities to be a pedestrian in, which is not a great way to look at the future. The size of the sidewalks or even the existence of the sidewalk does not promote walkability to any significant degree. Our most dangerous streets are fully of big, complete sidewalks.

The Township of Langley needs a massive paradigm shift. We can’t continue to build entire neighbourhoods that are built around moving cars faster: to do so puts lives at risk and reduces the opportunity to build a more future-proof community.

Previous Articles in the Walkable Langley Series:

Why making Langley “walkable” is so important

Stop demanding more lanes!

Build Mixed Use for Walkability: an Interview with Eric Woodward

Making Langley Walkable: Fix the Parking

A Walkable Langley Can’t Exist Without Transit

Protecting Pedestrians on Langley’s Streets (Part I)

 

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