Sunday February 21, 2016

What keeps walkers safe? A West Vancouver crosswalk gets mocked online

Anyone who cross at the intersection of Mathers Avenue and Thompson Crescent in West Vancouver can use these flags to remind drivers to slow down.

Anyone who cross at the intersection of Mathers Avenue and Thompson Crescent in West Vancouver can use these flags to remind drivers to slow down. (Elaine Chau/CBC)

Listen 10:48

The District of West Vancouver recently installed a special type of crosswalk.

On either side of the street are yellow flags, meant to be held by pedestrians as they cross a dangerous intersection, to ensure oncoming drivers can see them. The pilot project is a result of advocacy from parents, working with the District and the local elementary school.

Terron Falk is one of the parent's behind the pilot project. He described the dangers of the crosswalk to the CBC.

...so you saw that woman driving through there, when people were at the crosswalk, and that happens all the time. You get a lot of people who don't pay attention to the stop signs, for example. Over the last six years my kids have almost been hit several times. - Terron Falk

When the District of West Vancouver tweeted out a picture and description of the pilot project, a lot of Twitter users weren't impressed with the idea. Here are some of the tweets the District received.

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​The District clarified on Twitter that the flag arrangement was simply a pilot project, and other street improvements are planned.

So, what made the Twittersphere react so angrily to the District's plan? 

To some transportation advocates, the concept of flags reinforces an idea that pedestrians must take on the job of keeping themselves safe while walking around. Martyn Schmoll was not one of the displeased tweeters, but he is a parent in North Vancouver, and advocate for pedestrian-friendly streets. His take on flag crosswalks generally, is that despite the good intentions of the designers, they send a signal to the world.

It sends a message that pedestrians are the ones who should be looking out. It basically absolves the driver of some responsibility to make sure they obey the rules, and the law around crosswalks. - Martyn Schmoll

To Martyn, there's a general philosophy in society that cars are the priority, and designing for pedestrians is an afterthought. Beyond this specific intersection, Martyn believes we need to flip the order of priority when we design streets. The alternative, to Martyn, is reimagine every intersection from the point of view of pedestrians, and flip what he sees as a long-time priority for vehicles over walkers.

It's a completely different lens. It's an interesting thought experiment just to flip the pyramid. What is now at the top of the pyramid is the single occupancy vehicle, and pedestrians and cyclists are down near the bottom. If you think about designing every crosswalk with your 80-year old father, holding the hand of your 8 year old daughter to cross that street, if you close your eyes and think about that, it'll change the way you design these interactions. - Martyn Schmoll

As you can see in some of the angry tweets sent the way of the District of West Vancouver, there is a sentiment that it's not necessarily pedestrians and designers who have the prime responsibility in keeping pedestrians safe, but drivers themselves. 

But, one Vancouver woman who was hit by a car says that's faulty thinking. Jodi Derkson was walking her dog, one bright day in Vancouver in 2012. She was crossing a street, and saw a car approaching. She thought the car could see her, and assumed that meant she was safe. But, she was hit, and suffered a broken leg. To her, the idea that drivers can be trusted at any kind of crosswalk is risky. 

I think it's time for us to move from the small city to the big city that we are, and start to take responsibility for ourselves when we're crossing the street. I wish the drivers would look, but... are you willing to trust them? - Jodi Derkson

Back in West Vancouver, Terron Falk says the District has more planned, in terms of speed limits and street adjustments, while they're still advocating for more changes. As for the angry tweeters, Terron says he doesn't have much time for what people think on Twitter, and at the end of the day, at least a crossing pedestrian has a flag to wave in the face of a driver.