Nanaimo is not a pedestrian-friendly town. I walk where I need to go on a daily basis because I do not have my driver’s license, and nor do I want it. However, this means that I am putting myself in danger on a daily basis as well.
This is not new. Upon researching pedestrians or cyclists who have been hit by vehicles in Nanaimo, it became clear to me that this problem is systemic, and in no way unique to our little slice of paradise. In the last three months alone there have been at least three instances of pedestrians or cyclists being hit. In some cases, the fault lay directly at the feet of those struck, in others, it is less clear. Instead of laying blame, though, I argue that it is important to look at why these events happen in the first place.
Let me tell you a story of my average day, when VIU is in session at any rate. I get up, do my morning routine, and head out the door for the University. I walk there. I take as many side paths as I can, avoiding as many busy streets as possible—my end goal being to evade vehicles entirely. However, many of the side streets I take have no sidewalk, or if they do it will only be for a portion of the road, and then the sidewalk is simply gone. In many cases I end up crossing the street where there is no crosswalk.
I’m sure you’re wondering why I don’t simply bus, or carpool. The reasons for my decision to walk are threefold: I don’t own a driver’s license, I enjoy walking, and I do my best to help the environment whenever I can, and walking as opposed to bussing is a way to do that. I also don’t like being constrained to the schedules of the bus system in this town, which have, in the past, been less than beneficial. The bus schedules have improved dramatically since I first moved here 20 years ago, but they are still not perfect. When taking the bus, I find that I am either going to be 20 minutes early or 10 minutes late.
I should be safe, right? I take side streets, paths, and usually use crosswalks. I look both ways, and even when wearing headphones, do my best to ensure I am fully aware of all that is transpiring around me. Yet despite all the precautions I take, and the amount of thought I put into my route, I am almost hit by oncoming traffic on a daily basis.
The big reasons I see for this are in the design of the city, and the lack of protection offered to pedestrians: sidewalks ending without warning, crosswalks often placed several hundred metres away from one another to ensure the quick flow of traffic. Stop lights are designed for the same reasons, and pedestrian crossings often feel like an afterthought. A good example of such a situation would be the traffic lights on the Old Island Highway adjacent to Terminal Park Mall. The lights do make the area safer for pedestrians, but waiting at those lights is one of the most dangerous things I put myself through on a regular basis. There are no barriers between the road and the place where you stand waiting to cross, and the cars are traveling at such a speed that if something were to go wrong, as a pedestrian, you would have no time to react.
As I said, though, this is nothing new. The problem has been plaguing Nanaimo for several years. The City of Nanaimo and ICBC teamed up in 2009 to announce a funding partnership in order to make the streets of Nanaimo safer. Since then, ICBC has helped fund several improvement projects, such as ‘Stop’ sign upgrades, traffic signal upgrades, corridor upgrades (whatever those might be), geometric upgrades, and pedestrian crossing installations, among others. While this is wonderful, I question how effective they have actually been. Upgrading installations and adding crosswalks, or changing traffic patterns, deal with only one problem: the roads themselves. It doesn’t help educate drivers and pedestrians, it doesn’t make both sides more aware, and it doesn’t stop outside factors from influencing your situational awareness while driving or walking. So, in summation, it deals with the problem in the easiest way possible, by upgrading the hardware while still leaving blame for the accidents on drivers or pedestrians.
While that may be the only way to show that you are trying to help the problem, or stop the problem, it is only a band-aid fix. The real problem that leads to deaths and terrible injuries, such as those that befell VIU Creative Writing student Emily Smythe during the summer of 2012, is the fact that people are driving and walking distracted, not aware of all that is going on around them. We built roads for easy movement of vehicles from place to place. Those vehicles weigh a tonne or more and are travelling at incredible speeds.
No matter where you are, or whether you drive or walk, this problem is not going to go away. People will still die. We, as a society, need to start opening our eyes, and watching out for anything. All I ask is that people be aware. The moment you step outside your door, whether you hop in your car or start marching down the street, your life is not just in your hands, but everyone else’s. I don’t want to get hit by a car, and I imagine you don’t want to hit me. So watch out.