May 17, 2021

Has Speed & Efficiency Always Trumped Pedestrian Safety & Convenience? Vancouver 1937 & Today


I have been writing about Vancouver’s ominous placing as the first city in Canada to use the term “jaywalker”. It was the Montreal Gazette in 1918 that describes “jaywalker” as the “peculiar expression” that has “arisen” in Vancouver, describing unintelligent people not crossing at intersections, the same way heavy metal vehicles do.

This was of course an expression that was devised and advertised by motor vehicle companies to keep soft tissue beings (pedestrians) off the roads, reinforcing the right of vehicles to quickness and efficiency, which was deemed the modern approach to technological advancement. Pedestrians, cyclists and other sidewalk users were mandated to stay out of the way.

Peter Norton has written about how this term became common in the United States. It is a way to make two classes of people, those that drive and have rights to the road, and those who are not driving but still are responsible for not being hit by moving vehicles.

Early pedestrian or cyclist crashes written in local papers refer to people “running out” in the road or “colliding” with a vehicle. Vehicles had long blind spots in front of them, could not brake well, and there was no conformity at all to travel, signal, or behaviour on the road. Silent policemen bollards were installed at sidewalk intersections to keep vehicles from not mounting sidewalks. In 1918 “jaywalking” lines were approved to be painted at major intersections to get pedestrians to cross within markings at intersections.  Traffic policemen stood in the middle of the street with “stop and go” activated paddles in 1923. The first “pillar ” traffic electric traffic light was installed in 1937.

But even then, pedestrians were made to feel personally responsible for making streets safer for vehicle travel,  as this article from the September 3 1937 Vancouver Sun states:

“Pedestrians can stop more quickly than autos. Motorists are bound by law to exercise caution on the city’s streets but the wise pedestrian recognizes only one law-the law of caution. The fact that a motorist was to blame doesn’t lessen the pain of the victim in the hospital bed. A pedestrian may be sacrificing his rights sometimes in allowing a motorist to go by without slackening speed, but the price is small compared to the saving”.

This efficiency and speed  argument in favour of the automobile driver can also be seen in this advertisement in the Vancouver Sun in 1937, for “Super Shell gas” that quotes futurist Norman Bel Geddes, “an authority” on future trends.

” Over half the space in the city of 1960 will be used for parks and playgrounds. Pedestrians will move safely on elevated sidewalks above the traffic level. Streets will be made wider by removing sidewalks…parking and truck unloading will be done inside the building”.


And here’s the kicker:

“traffic going ten blocks or more will use high-speed express streets. No stop lights…no intersections…no stop and go!”

Why is that important? Because “stop and go “  “driving wastes fuel, and “one stop “can use up as much gasoline as five blocks of steady running. And wherever you live, you average 30 stops a day!”

We take for granted what this over eighty year old admonishment has meant for pedestrians: cross at the intersections, even though they are unsafe with four directions of travel,  and don’t cross midblock with only two directions of travel which is not good for vehicles who don’t want to “stop”.

Fifty years later research in the 1990’s  conducted by the US Transportation Research Board showed that  26 percent of all pedestrian accidents occurred by the “midblock dash” at informal “midblock crossings”.  But 25 percent of accidents happen at  so called “safer” marked crosswalked  intersections, and 50 percent by random vehicles mounting curbs and  other random crash sites. What we have been “told” about crossing at intersections has been for the vehicle drivers’ convenience, not the pedestrians.

Today, how much has changed?


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