Friday, December 31, 2010

Ordered chaos

A string of pedestrian accidents, including three fatalities, occurred over Christmastime in Winnipeg, prompting calls for some kind of official action.

At the time my great-grandfather stepped off the train and into the streets of Winnipeg in 1919, automobile use was rapidly increasing. Between 1920 and 1923, the number of registered vehicles in Winnipeg increased from 11,783 to 16,691. Still, the roadways were governed by an ordered chaos. The clip below, between 0:50 and 2:10, shows this at work on Portage Avenue and Main Street. While these streets were originally, and ultimately for the passage of vehicles, the density and mixed uses of the city made them much more than that. No one, not the motorists, the pedestrians, the streetcar operators, the cyclists, or the taxi and delivery drivers, took anything for granted.

A period of conflict emerged in the 1940s, as motor vehicle use increased, and their lobby groups demanded public effort at make life a little less hectic for motorists. A new "pseudo-science" of traffic engineers began appropriating the roadway exclusively for the easy passage of motor vehicles. Citizens were slow to catch on to the change. In 1946, the Tribune noted the growing regularity of traffic fatalities. But this usually fell on the shoulders of pedestrians of a city was considered the jay-walking capital of Canada. Something needed to be done about this.

Something was done. In lieu of actual expressways to plan, traffic engineers rendered Winnipeg's busy streets into expressway-like roadways. The quick and easy passage of vehicles became the near-exclusive use of roadways. While this occurred throughout North America, Winnipeg was particularly aggressive, and today the city's downtown is littered with anti-pedestrian infrastructure (of which the Portage and Main barricades is only the largest example--try walking down Donald St. between Graham and St. Mary sometime). Not willing to suffer such a hostile, inconvenient and degrading environment, most pedestrians disappeared. Storefront businesses, obviously, followed not far behind.

After decades of traffic engineering and suburbanization, motorists, pedestrians and cyclists have become seemingly unable (and unwilling) to co-exist. Traffic lights and painted lanes have allowed motorists to turn their brains off. Pedestrian crossings have allowed pedestrians to do the same--pressing the "cross" button and brainlessly stepping into traffic. Regulations, the thinking goes, have made transportation safe for them; no need to pay attention what else is going on. And so, the ultra-planned and regimented intersections of suburbia became scenes of fatalities over the past couple of weeks. Until drivers are given cause to become more aware of their surroundings, and take quick passage for granted, the best laid plans of traffic engineers (a pedestrian stepping out when and where it was not planned for) will continue to be occasionally interrupted by tragedy.