Whoa! Slow down and share, architect and urban planner say

No policies, no engineering or design solutions, no reduced speeds and new stop signs, no policing, no fines will work unless everyone actually takes sharing the road to heart.

Wins jogs, Rae cycles — and both share the road with sometimes inattentive drivers

Roads were not always the domain of cars, Wins Bridgman and Rae St. Clair Bridgman write. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Wins is a jogger, and Rae is a cyclist.

Wins jogs to and from the office several days a week year-round — six kilometres each way. During the non-winter months, Rae bikes to work at the university — 11 kilometres each way.

We think of it as a way to see the city, check on buildings under construction, say hi to neighbours and friends on the way, enjoy the weather, be healthy. It's our thinking time.

There's just one problem.

At least two or three times a week, we witness a car failing to stop at the stop sign or crosswalk, or drivers going right through the red lights, turning into the pedestrian crossing lane, you name it … and our very lives are threatened. 

(Just in case you're wondering, yes, we wear an unfashionable number of fluorescent stripes, belts, vests and flashing lights.)

We're not the only ones.

Brent Bellamy, an architect with Number Ten Architectural Group (he writes a popular Winnipeg Free Press column on urban design) was hit three months ago at the corner of Wellington and Academy while riding his bike.

We appreciate the city is making many structural changes to add more bike lanes, improve crosswalks and so on, but there's a larger issue here. 

No policies, no engineering or design solutions, no reduced speeds and new stop signs, no policing, no fines will work unless everyone actually takes sharing the road to heart. 

Just what does "share the road" mean?

Drivers must be on the lookout for pedestrians and cyclists, and pedestrians and cyclists must certainly look out for drivers.

Those responsibilities are shared. 

Pedestrians, you may indeed have the right of way, but you can end up dead right. The odds are unfortunately stacked against you in the face of a speeding half-ton pickup truck or SUV.

When city streets were everyone's space

Until the 1920s, streets were predominantly for people. Motorized vehicles were the interlopers and pedestrian deaths were understood to be public tragedies, until automobile interests redefined who owned the street and mounted a public relations campaign. 

That campaign? Persuade the general public streets were made for cars to drive, not for pedestrians to walk. Peter Norton's Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City documents the invention of words like jaywalking for hapless pedestrians venturing into the street. 

Pedestrians, horse-drawn vehicles and electric trams used to share the road with any cars that might be around, as in this scene at Portage Avenue and Main Street in 1912. (Archives of Manitoba)

Here's some Winnipeg historic transportation trivia: A traffic signal was installed and tested at the corner of Main and Higgins in September 1926, and a new traffic signal was installed at the corner of Portage and Main in April 1927.

"The red light means 'stop;' the amber gives warning of change, and the green signal beckons to proceed," an article in the April 4, 1927, edition of the Winnipeg Tribune told readers.

Challenging inequity

Ordinary people have responded with humour and creativity to challenge present-day inequity between cars and people. 

Mexico's two famous citizen activists Jonadab Martinez (as El Mimo, the Mime) and Jorge Cáñez (as Peatónito, the Little Pedestrian — a masked crusader) have used street theatre to lobby for pedestrian safety.

Pedestrians and cyclists around the world also have taken to the streets during Ciclovia, which closes some streets to automobiles. 

In 2009, Winnipeg was the first city in Canada to hold an official Ciclovia. Thousands of people crowded Broadway on foot, skateboards and bikes for the celebration of cycling and car-free streets.

There's even an organization to protect pedestrian interests — the International Federation of Pedestrians, a UN-accredited non-governmental organization started in 1963.

All these individuals and groups simultaneously celebrate walkable cities and challenge vehicular supremacy.

Why a challenge?

Commerce is based on regulated, efficient movement of cars, buses and trucks. Anything getting in the way of transportation is a threat to the economy. 

And we live here in sprawling Winnipeg, so advocating for driving less can be a tough sell.

But imagine if we changed pedestrian parameters in a civil manner.

5 minute challenge

Let's imagine everyone can slow down — and recognize faster is not always better — à la Carl Honoré's In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed.

Imagine if commuters on their way to work voluntarily allocated five more minutes to their trip. 

Pedestrians have a greater chance of surviving if hit by a slower moving vehicle. Safe Speeds Winnipeg, a group of Winnipeggers concerned about pedestrian safety, has been actively lobbying for lowering speed limits citywide.

BridgmanCollaborative Architecture created this design for a T-shirt campaign that would encourage commuters to slow down and take an extra five minutes. (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)

In honour of slowing down, we have designed a T-shirt you could wear at work to show off your new resolve.

Or imagine a special horn blasting out "WHOA, buddy!" when you see sloppy driving. WHOA (a great acronym) could become a rallying cry for Walking Has Our Attention, Welcome Here One and All, and We Help One Another.

'WHOA, buddy!' horns carried by pedestrians, cyclists and even other drivers could publicly call out speeding and careless, inattentive driving. (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)

We, all of us, know we must remember our past in order to learn from our history.

We remember where pedestrians and cyclists have been maimed or died unnecessarily in Winnipeg. 

We propose — as an act of moving toward a better future — we light a candle, or at least shine an electric light, for those people who have died on the street. This is a gentle and silent protest. 

And when there are no more pedestrians and cyclists killed, we will remember this as a time we all worked together through a difficult moment in our history.

An orange pole could commemorate sites of pedestrian and cycling fatalities in Winnipeg. (BridgmanCollaborative Architecture)

Today, Wins was nearly hit by a car — again.

The driver made a mistake. She ran a red light. She looked terrified. She sped up and disappeared on into the traffic ahead. 

She did not want to look at him. How could she? 

There were other cars that could have hit her. Did she learn anything today? 

Is Winnipeg more her city than Wins'? Was her safety more important than his? 

Did she tell her family and friends or co-workers about her near accident? That she almost killed someone?

Will she drive more slowly and with more care tomorrow?

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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Wins Bridgman and Rae St. Clair Bridgman (a professor in the department of city planning at the University of Manitoba) co-direct the Winnipeg design firm BridgmanCollaborative Architecture.