One of my favourite ways to get around town is also the most old-fashioned ways to get around town. Some days I wonder why I put up with all the distracted drivers, missing crosswalks, annoying push buttons and being the lowest class citizen at intersections, but then I remember the joy of moving slowly, allowing my thoughts to wonder and soaking up the sights and sounds of the city. Whether it's July or January, I'd rather just lace my boots up and walk.
"Everyone is a pedestrian," Ken Reashor once quipped. As the city's Traffic Authority, he has sole responsibility in approving or denying changes to roadways. He can even veto a decision of council, under the guise of safety. This year, the city was forced to create a Crosswalk Safety Advisory Committee, because too many "pedestrians" are killing other pedestrians while careening about in two-tonne steel boxes.
In 2012, 140 Halifax pedestrians were struck by cars. Four of them died. While complete stats for this year are not yet available, since Labour Day, three Metro Transit drivers have been charged with failing to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk. If we're all pedestrians, shouldn't we be looking out for each other?
When strolling across the Common on my way to work, I like to think about the stuff I've seen around the world.
In Toronto, there is an intersection where pedestrians can cross in any direction, including diagonally! Once per cycle, all lights turn red and pedestrians are offered a free-for-all, just like in the good old days.
Beatles fans are familiar with the zebra stripes on the Abbey Road album cover. In continental Europe, many crosswalks are painted bright blue so that they really stand out. Here in Halifax, we're left with thin white stripes, sometimes only half-painted.
Why can't we have crossings like those? To their credit, the city's engineers seem open to making some changes for pedestrian safety as long as intersections remain "within standards." I've never been able to get a straight answer for these "standards," but anyone asked is quite clear: the goal is to move as many cars as possible across the peninsula.
Since everyone is a pedestrian, let's change the conversation. We need to move people across the city.
Like a kid in a candy shop, I've been gleefully eyeing the repairs surrounding the new central library. The city has finally acknowledged the pedestrian crossing at Brunswick Street and Spring Garden Road, where hundreds of people used to brave the sprint through traffic every day. Councillor Waye Mason has repeatedly floated the idea of scramble crosswalks at Spring Garden Road and Queen Street, as well as Barrington and Duke Streets. By providing certainty for all road users, crosswalk enhancements benefit pedestrians and drivers alike.
Hardly a day goes by where I don't spot at least one distracted driver sending a text message. Every week I witness drivers rolling through stop signs, not checking for pedestrians on the side streets, or failing to look both ways. Even though I get to enjoy the use of my cell phone when walking, I have to stop and look both ways even when I clearly have the right of way. I've had too many close calls to risk crossing in any other way.
Despite the few gains we've achieved this year, there have been some really public setbacks. The Macdonald Bridge sidewalks and bike lanes are being hauled out for the re-decking project. The Chain of Lakes Trail is being shut down for a sewer. City tendering processes leave some crosswalks half-painted. A wholehearted effort from council and staff is required to improve the pedestrian experience.
The next time you're coming downtown to shop or visit the doctor, I urge you to park 10 minutes from your destination. As you finish that walk on foot, you'll understand the joys and risks I'm talking about. Keep your eyes open---we're all pedestrians.
Ben Wedge is an engineer in training and is a private consultant working to enhance citizen service delivery for the provincial government. He is a vocal member of the active transportation community as a member of the CSAC and as a co-chair of the Halifax Cycling Coalition. He regularly tweets about active transportation issues @benwedge