When under pressure, policy-makers sometimes fall for the Politician’s Fallacy:
1. We must do something
2. This is something
3. Therefore, we must do this.
Hence the debate about building a multi-million dollar pedway (a pedestrian overpass) at an intersection by the new Waterford Valley High School on Topsail Road. This idea was proposed by St. John’s city councillor Art Puddister in the days following the tragic death of a teenager struck by a vehicle at a different, but nearby intersection.* The poorly thought-out plan is also backed by Liberal MHA Tom Osborne, and recent city council aspirant Sarah Colborne Penney.
While I fully agree that the city should do more to ensure pedestrian safety near the new high school, I fear that well-meaning people have rallied behind a bad policy that won’t make anyone safer, while ignoring more sensible and effective options.
People won’t use it
Pedways only get used if they are the most convenient option. This is well understood by traffic engineers. Here is an excerpt from a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation:
[Pedways] are extremely costly to construct and are often not considered pedestrian-friendly because pedestrians are forced to travel out of their way to use the underpass or overpass. The effectiveness of a [pedway] depends on whether or not pedestrians perceive that it is easier to use than a street crossing.
Using the Topsail Road pedway would probably involve: 1. opening a door, 2. climbing two flights of stairs, 3. crossing the street, 4. climbing down two flights of stairs, 5. opening a second door.
Compare this to simply using the crosswalk. It just isn’t realistic to expect people, particularly teenagers, to take the longer and less convenient route day after day.
But MUN has them!
MUN has three pedways across Prince Phillip Drive and one across Westerland Road, and some of them are heavily used. Why is Topsail Road any different?
Most pedways at MUN fit into a network of indoor pedestrian routes that allow people to walk around campus without stepping outdoors. Many MUN pedways don’t cross streets at all, but merely connect buildings for the sake of convenience. In contrast, the Topsail Road pedway would lead from the outdoors, to the outdoors.
Furthermore, people are forced to use the MUN pedways to cross Prince Philip Drive because a fence was built along the road to stop jaywalking. A fence is not an option on Topsail Road, because it would prevent cars from using the intersection.
On Westerland Road, where there is no fence, people routinely cross at street level. After a series pedestrian of injuries right next to the existing pedway, the university gave into protests and improved the crosswalks by installing curb extensions and better lighting. Crossing Westerland Road has felt much safer ever since.
What can we do instead?
There are a lot of ways to design a safer intersection by Waterford Valley High.
The crosswalks could be raised a few inches higher than the rest of the road. This acts as a speed bump to slow down vehicles entering the intersection, and helps improve visibility. Such crosswalks have been installed on Topsail Road.
Curb extensions and/or a traffic island would also improve visibility, slow down traffic, and shorten pedestrian crossings.
Better lights and/or a pedestrian-initiated crossing signal would be a big help in improving visibility for drivers.
All of these options would be more effective than a pedway, because they would actually get used. They are also a lot cheaper. According to some estimates I found on the web, these safety upgrades might cost about $50,000 — only 2 per cent of the cost of a pedway.
If people are keen to spend a lot of money, then hiring crossing guards is a better way to spend it. Indeed, the intersection could be monitored by a full-time traffic cop for less than it would cost to finance a pedway.
“If it saves one life…”
People lobbying for this pedway have adopted a slogan I think everyone can agree with: “If it saves one life, then it’s worth the cost.”
But that’s a really big “if”. Indeed, if we forgo more sensible solutions to build a pedway that nobody uses, then we are actually putting the students of Waterford Valley High at unnecessary risk. Public safety is too important to sacrifice to political pandering. Let’s do the right thing and say no to Puddister’s Pedway.
* The teenager was struck by a vehicle near Hazelwood Elementary, which is 600 metres from where the pedway would be built.