Winnipeg drivers tend to balk at all the stuff that makes them safer.
Try to calm traffic through River Heights with roundabouts and a summer rebellion brews. Try to block roads to deter commuter cut-throughs and a city councillor’s phone lines light up. Let’s not even suggest de-synchronizing green lights at night to stop speeding.
But those are the things other major cities are testing to reduce traffic fatalities, going street by street to make intersections safer.
In New York City, where the new mayor has pledged to eliminate traffic deaths in a decade, the city will renovate 50 of the dodgiest intersections and arterials every year. Engineers are looking to add a cascading set of safety tweaks, all fairly cheap, such as clearer lane markings, new left-turning lanes and lights so drivers don’t feel pressure to turn too soon, bigger medians for pedestrians and even adjusting traffic lights to slow speeders at night.
Already, at intersections that have been overhauled, fatalities have decreased by a third, according to New York City’s Department of Transportation.
Winnipeg does virtually none of these things on a large, co-ordinated scale, even though nearly 8,000 people were injured in crashes in Winnipeg in 2012 alone. Few innovative best practices can been seen on city streets, due largely to the city’s meagre traffic-safety budget. Just $1.1 million is spent annually on safety fixes, a number that has been stagnant for years and mostly gets hoovered up by a few new lights and crosswalks.
When a traffic death occurs, city engineers try to review an intersection to see if they can make it safer, but there’s virtually no proactive safety improvements on the go.
City transportation manager Luis Escobar says the city is doing what it can with the cash it has. Countdown timers are now popping up on some intersections, telling pedestrians and motorists how many seconds they have to cross and how fresh is the green light. There have been significant improvements for disabled people, such as the bumpy yellow pads on intersection sidewalks. Roundabouts, the scourge of River Heights a few years ago, are now the default option for new intersections. The city could see 20 more over the next few years, including perhaps one at Panet Road and Molson Drive.
And, unusual for most major metropolises, all of Winnipeg’s traffic-light poles are built to break away and topple over easily when hit by a car, which reduces impact injuries.
But significant safety tweaks typically mean slowing traffic, tough to do in a car city with virtually no freeways. Major roads such as Kenaston Boulevard and Pembina Highway do double duty, funnelling people into the downtown fast while also providing access to residential neighbourhoods and businesses. Those hybrid roads are hard to plan around.
"It’s very, very difficult," said Escobar.
Still, Jeannette Montufar, a University of Manitoba traffic engineer, says the city could do exponentially more to make intersections models of safety. Instead of being aggressive and risking a little bit of motorist backlash, engineers compromise too much.
"They’re trying to keep everyone happy. You want the residents to be happy. You want the politicians to be happy and the public to be happy," she said. "Sure, you make it safe, but you could do much more. Because you have to balance all these different needs and all these people yelling at you, you end up with something that could be better."