Would intersections be ‘safe’ if pedestrians followed the rules?

A few years ago a car-maker launched a viral ad where people waiting to cross an intersection were entertained by a dancing figure on the red pedestrian traffic light.

Nobody likes to wait”, states the ad: “That makes traffic lights the most dangerous spots for pedestrians in the city” it warns. The commercial proceeds to show people dancing with the red-light figure, and then celebrates that the intervention led to 81% more people waiting at the red light.

Days after the ad was originally uploaded to YouTube, CityLab and other urban affairs websites were excitedly featuring it as an innovative urban intervention, boasting about the 81% increase in compliance, etc.

Here I will take a more critical look at it.

 

To justify the value of their undertaking, the ad makes three assumptions which are deeply ingrained into many people’s perceptions of pedestrian safety:

  1. That intersections are the most dangerous spots for pedestrians
  2. That this is so because pedestrians often cross when they are not supposed to, and
  3. That if pedestrians wait for their turn, they will be safe

So, how much truth is there to each of these assumptions? Let’s use Ontario’s Office of the Coroner (2012) Pedestrian Death Review to find out*.

According to this robust investigation, approximately 33% of pedestrian deaths in the province took place at intersections. This shows that, indeed, intersections are among the most dangerous places for pedestrians**. Assumption 1 is sound.

What about assumptions 2 and 3? A close examination of all fatal collisions that took place within intersections suggests there is little truth to them. Only 36% of all intersection deaths were due to pedestrians crossing against their signal, while 64% involved pedestrians who were struck while crossing when they were supposed to. This occurred when vehicles were turning right (21%), left (21%), going straight through intersections (12%) and at pedestrian crosswalks (9%) (Ontario’s Office of the Coroner, 2012).

In other words, two thirds of pedestrian fatalities at intersections were due to drivers’ failure to yield when they were supposed to. Indeed,  Nobody likes to wait.

This alarming figure raises a few questions: Should pedestrians follow the rules even if there is no certainty that motorists will abide? Is it sometimes safer to cross against one’s signal (say, if there are no cars in sight)? Could infrastructure provide more protection for pedestrians in the event that drivers fail to yield?

Answering these questions necessarily requires that we dispose of our ‘common sense’ thinking about pedestrian safety (and pedestrian mobility in general).

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“Could infrastructure provide more protection for pedestrians in the event that drivers fail to yield?” Everything in this particular intersection encourages drivers to speed through.

Here’s one last shocking take-away from the Coroner’s report: pedestrians in Ontario are more likely to get killed by a motor vehicle while standing on the sidewalk or shoulder of the road than by crossing against their signal. That’s right, 14% of all deaths involved motorists losing control of their vehicles and mauling pedestrians on sidewalks and shoulders, while only 12% of all deaths could be attributed to pedestrians disobeying a red light. Turns out dancing on the sidewalk waiting for your turn might not be so safe after all.

Final thoughts:

An appropriate reading of the figures outlined in this piece does not suggest that crossing against one’s signal is safe (or safer). What it does suggest is that the assumption that pedestrians are generally struck and killed due to their own reckless behaviour is overwhelmingly refuted by data – at least in the Canadian province of Ontario.

Bonus Question:

Is it a coincidence that the ad  featured in this article was made by a car manufacturer?

Footnotes:

*Note that, in basing our analysis on this document, we are choosing to consider ‘death’ as the chief variable in determining safety, rather than the prospect of a minor collision. It would be interesting to see how similar data from other world regions align.

** The second most likely location for a pedestrian death is ‘mid-block’ (31%): anywhere on a road where there is no controlled crossing. It is difficult to determine what this means exactly in terms of individual responsibility given the long stretches of road without controlled crossings in North American cities.    

 

 

Uneconomic Growth: When having more things makes us poorer

My first reaction visiting North America was “I like all the space”. I wasn’t even 10 years old but I appreciated that buildings were very far apart from one another and contained greenery in between.  Of course, I wasn’t paying anything for housing or transportation, I did not have to commute, I was driven to restaurants and grocery shops, and as far as I was aware fossil fuels were next to infinite and hardly harmful.

Things have changed quite a bit.

Downtown high density living.

As a young man I had to live in a suburb to attend university for several years. I had a budget and was supposed to make the best out of it. Quickly I realised that driving is far from something you can take for granted under those circumstances: on top of rent, I would have had to shell out hundreds of dollars every month for the ‘privilege’ to move around town. I didn’t. Grocery shopping was hell, winter night outings were horrible, and many hours were wasted waiting for and riding late buses to and from strip malls. I also found out that what were now scattered houses used to be productive farmland and that suburban sprawl was actually not ‘providing us with nature’ but rather ‘eating nature away’ at a faster rate than old cities ever could.

I realised then that if only all the cardboard houses that defined the suburban landscape were closer to one another then maybe I could walk to the supermarket, walk to university/work, and walk to visit friends. OK, I lie, my first instinct was that my suburb should have a subway, but maintaining a subway in a low density area would have proven more expensive than having everyone own cars, so…

What I was suffering back then were the consequences of uneconomic growth. Herman Daly coined that term decades ago to describe economic growth that leads to a decrease in well-being and quality of life. Because ‘everyone’ owned large houses and cars and governments had built vast expanses of expensive infrastructure to accommodate them, a teenager needed to spare $600 a month in order to move comfortably.

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Suburban entertainment and housing in Mississauga, ON

Assuming a university student lives with his or her parents, in Ontario he/she must take on the following monthly costs to commute comfortably (in a car):

  • Car insurance: $200 (conservative estimate)
  • Parking: $208 ($13 per day, 4 days a week, as per University of Toronto at Mississauga costs and classes)
  • Gas:  $120 ($30 a week for a 10 km commute)
  • Car + Maintenance: I’m not even going to include this.

That is, you need to spend at least $528 a month in order to reach ‘standard comfort levels’. And you need to do this on the back of an increased and continuous exploitation of natural resources. If you want to get milk, you need to move several tons of steel with you while blowing poisonous exhaust into the atmosphere. Down 10 years (if that), you’ll have to dispose of your obsolete vehicle and replace it with a new one that’s up to the task – thus perpetuating the cycle of tireless consumption.

Then I moved to a high density mixed use area.

By throwing my ‘car-money’ into rent I managed instead to afford an apartment 3-minutes away (walk) from a grocery store, I have a 15-minute bike ride (or 20 minute streetcar ride) commute, and I have spare change to dine out several times a week.

Living in a higher density area has counterintuitively gifted me more leisure time and transportation options to spend in green spaces. I’m more in touch with nature than ever before.

Higher densities can provide equivalent or superior quality of life to citizens at a much lower financial and environmental cost. Having more things, in this case more land per household, can sometimes indirectly make us all poorer.

‘Downtown’ is a scary crime-ridden place… or is it?

All around the world, cities’ high density areas get a worse rep than they deserve crime-wise. When a newspaper decides to publish a story about the most dangerous places in town, high density mixed used areas tend to be highlighted and unfairly shamed time and time again.

St. Lawrence Market Front Street Toronto Ontario Canada Street

Is this really a particularly unsafe neighbourhood?

Is Downtown Toronto, for example, a scary and violent place? Mainstream media reports sure depict it that way, but you should look at the data more closely before drawing any conclusions. While the graphs, ranks, and maps that news outlets publish are often quite relevant, the assessment of their significance is rarely taken seriously.

Look up a map of Toronto’s crime distribution and you will find a perfect example of this trend. The maps themselves are often valuable and well made, but their interpretation (or lack thereof) is rarely satisfactory.

The map below, published by the CBC, shows the number of assaults per 10,000 residents in the City of Toronto’s various neighbourhoods:

toronto crime downtown map population accuracy

CBC Map of Toronto: assaults per 10,000 residents.

What do you see? Downtown Toronto, especially the area encompassing the Financial/Hospital/and Provincial Government Districts, is by far the most dangerous place in town as far as assaults are concerned. But is this an appropriate and accurate interpretation of these results? (Spoiler: It is not) The CBC dilligently posted a “methodology and limitations” section attached to their virtual map application, but there is nothing in there that suggests that the map may be misleading in this regard.

What the CBC should have pointed out (among other things), but did not, was that adjusting for residential density only gets you so far. The assaults reported to Toronto police were not necessarily committed by or against members of one of these neighbourhoods. What this means is that, assuming crime is spread homogeneously, after adjusting for residential density you will predictably end up with a map where the neighbourhoods that attract people beyond their boundaries will be unfairly portrayed as having higher crime rates.

So, places that attract hundreds of thousands of non-district residents weekly and possess relatively low residential densities – such as Toronto’s financial and entertainment districts – are bound to report much higher rates of assault per 10,000 residents than parts of the city that don’t attract crowds and workers but may in fact be more dangerous.

In recent years both the CBC, the Toronto Star, and a number of other respected media outlets have published maps and stats like these and failed to point out that assaults per resident cannot be used to compare busy downtown wards bustling with outsiders versus sleepy residential enclaves. This is just one of many methodological considerations they have failed to consider for these specific maps.

Urban areas already carry enough crime-related stigma as it is without maps that overstate their crime rates due to methodological faults and limitations. Lists such as the “top 10 neighbourhoods with most crime in each category” based on the CBC map (above) simply cannot be justified given the shaky methodology.

This and other cases of misinformation through the inappropriate assessments of methodological limitations could be avoided by media outlets by having their articles reviewed by competent scientists. Professionals with experience in scientific experimental design would likely spot these issues within minutes and add, at the very least, a few footnotes here and there to save some face.

Final thoughts:

The most troubling thing about this phenomenon is not that we are failing to adequately educate the public about important issues, but that we are often – inadvertently – spreading misinformation and shaping people’s views with weak or incomplete narratives that may or may not be consistent with reality. We are frequently turning heads in the wrong direction.

By Daniel Arancibia