Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

Red Light, Green Light, No Insight: Part 2

Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

Dear Winnipeg,

Yesterday, in Part 1 of this three-part series, we established that the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Canada is NOT a set of standards to be blindly followed. And we asked if there was any harm in using it as such.

And there is.

Because, even though the MUTCDC looks like a purely technical document, an objective and scientific application of engineering standards, it’s not. What is contained in it, and what is not, betray the core values upon which it is built. Since it’s a tool for highways, the dearest of those values is high vehicle speeds baked-in as a paramount, unquestionable, inviolable core truth. Even if that’s ultimately at odds with our own values and goals as a city.

As such, being an expert in the MUTCDC does not make you an expert in safety. It makes you an expert in trying to move cars quickly.

Because of that critical blind spot, using it as the “standard” for improving safety in cities can lead to only one of two outcomes: 1) doing nothing, or 2) spending an excessive amount of money on what looks like doing something, but is actually still doing nothing.

That second one is dangerous for the public purse, because traffic engineering consulting contracts are paid as a percentage of the total work being done, a perverse incentive for traffic engineers to inflate the scope of work needed. It also makes it easier to hide unnecessary work in plain sight.

But I digress.

Let me give you some examples.

At one time in my neighbourhood, a petition for speed humps to be installed on Hart Ave was submitted to the City bearing the signatures of 73% of residents there. Engineers went out and measured vehicle speeds over 3 years, and found that the overwhelming majority of drivers were not speeding, ie. they were not exceeding the speed limit. So, the City did nothing.

Drivers weren’t speeding, therefore it was deemed that speed wasn’t an issue. Except that’s a leap in logic. Speeding wasn’t an issue. But speed most certainly was. People have no idea what 50 km/h feels like outside of a vehicle. They don’t have an internal speed radar that tells them how fast cars are travelling on their street. But evolution has left us with the ability to sense when we’re in danger. And three quarters of the people living on this street felt they were in danger.

But the MUTCDC leaves no room for discussion of whether the 50km/h speed limit itself is appropriate. It’s implicitly assumed that it is. The people are wrong. The “standards” aren’t.

[Gaslight much?]

And this happens in neighbourhood after neighbourhood, year after year. And we accept it. Because, the “standards” have fed into our anchoring bias. Anchoring is a cognitive bias which influences our decisions based on the first piece of information received. For example, if you see a scarf for sale for $1,000, and then later, you see another scarf for sale for $400, you’ll think the second scarf is a great deal, without questioning whether the price of the first scarf was even reasonable to begin with. You’ve “anchored” yourself to the first price, and now compare every other price to that one.

Likewise, we’ve been anchored to speed limits set by highway engineers in the 1950s. Every discussion on vehicle speeds is now tethered to that anchor, without ever questioning whether that anchor was even appropriate in cities to begin with.

A hint that it’s not is the stretch of Henderson Hwy in Elmwood, the closest thing my neighbourhood has to a “downtown”. Back in the day, it was a vibrant hub of economic and social activity. But over time, changes were made to it so it would meet the “standards”, and now very few people walk on the sidewalks here. They walk in the back alleys behind the businesses instead, so as to avoid walking in the clear zone.

Most people don’t even know what a clear zone is, but they do know that they prefer to walk in a gross, dank, back alley than on the sidewalk in front of local businesses. The latter just feels dangerous to our monkey-brains, so we naturally avoid it.

You don’t get that kind of insight from rote memorization of a book of “standards”. You get it by humbly observing the local context.

But changing the street design to reduce vehicle speeds, thus reducing the size of the clear zone so it no longer covers the sidewalk, is off the table, because, the “standards” presume high vehicle speeds. And again we accept that, vociferously defend it even. [Reducing speeds on an arterial? That’s crazy!]

And we see it even when changes are being recommended. It’s a well-established engineering concept that streets need to be made safe through its physical design. But when the design speed is already predetermined, there is very little that can actually be done to make things safer without that pesky undesirable side-effect of slowing traffic.

Because crossing pedestrians are difficult to spot when driving at high speeds, our first try was to restrict pedestrians to crossing at designated areas only, with the invention of jay-walking (which we started doing, at least Downtown, in 1936).

When it became apparent that wasn’t enough to keep everyone safe from fast-moving vehicles, we added street paint and signage and made pedestrians do a silly dance to indicate their intent to cross.

“To use the safety corridors, pedestrians signify their intent to cross the street by pointing with one arm outstretched. […] The driver will know he is approaching one of the corridors when he sees a sign of white painted rectangles, 100 feet from it, reading “Do Not Pass to X”. Directly above the corridor is a large, illuminated sign reading X.”

— Winnipeg Free Press, “People Point Friday”, August 31, 1967

When that still wasn’t enough to make the pedestrians visible, we added flashing lights.

“Something new has been added to 12 pedestrian corridors in the city in order to beef up their safety. Flashing amber beacons installed by city engineers at the busiest and most accident-prone crosswalks will be unveiled Monday.”

— Winnipeg Free Press, “City aims its beacons at safer crosswalks”, November 3, 1979

Interestingly, the reason for the upgrade is stated a little later in the article:

“Although he [traffic operations engineer Mel Hirt] said pedestrian corridors have always been highly visible since they were installed in 1966 [sic], some of the novelty of using them wore off after a few years and pedestrians as well as motorists got a little sloppy.”

— Winnipeg Free Press, “City aims its beacons at safer crosswalks”, November 3, 1979

Evidently, pedestrians and motorists have gotten sloppy again, because safety advocates and engineers alike now think it’s a good idea to escalate even further because “overhead crosswalk signs and flashing amber lights […] are sometimes easy for drivers to miss.”

So now to catch drivers’ attention, engineering arguments about overhead pedestrian lights being outside of their “cone of vision” are used to justify installing low-mounted lights. And to have them flash more quickly.

Of course, there’s still no discussion of the fact that the size of your cone of vision, and therefore what you’re able to see, varies according to your speed of travel. Because vehicles traveling at high speeds in our neighbourhoods is never up for discussion.

Image credit: A Playful City, based on data from NACTO

Or maybe we just need to be more aggressive right away, like some have suggested, and make them all into (expensive) pedestrian half-signals, those that look just like regular traffic signals. Because drivers never run red lights… [eye roll]

Actual design changes to the physical infrastructure of a street, like narrowing lanes and adding raised crosswalks, are what make it safe, because they don’t rely on user compliance. You ignore a raised crosswalk, and you lose the bottom end of your car. Compliance is not optional.

Adding an ever-escalating collection of signs and blinking lights makes us feel like we’re doing something. But any intervention that requires users not getting “sloppy” only wastes lives, time and money, because as we’ve seen many times already over the past century, improvements to safety only last until the novelty wears off.

It’s all just “safety theatre”, with the appearance of having done something, when all we’ve done is spend a bunch of money without actually addressing the underlying issue: that high vehicle speeds are fundamentally incompatible with pedestrian safety, with economic activity, with thriving small businesses, with equity, with vibrant neighbourhoods.

Signs and blinking lights are, as I like to call them, the Groundskeeper Willie of traffic safety interventions: “We’re going to make sure no one ever falls down this well again!”

That should do it!

And if that doesn’t work? Well, apparently that’s why we have enforcement…

The real scandal is that the City relies on the enforcement revenue that results from keeping our streets unsafe in order to balance the police budget.

That approach sounds ludicrous when we’re talking about an open well, yet we accept it as normal when it comes to the safety of our streets.

In 2018, 8-year-old Surafiel Musse Tesfamariam was killed crossing a 60 km/h stroad on the way to school accompanied by his mother. The boy’s family asked for slower vehicle speeds to prevent further tragedies from happening there, “because this is a school area”. Instead, they got a commemorative sign and some blinking lights.

Apparently, the “standards” tell us that the bleeding edge of pedestrian safety is… moving the blinking lights a little bit lower.

Speed is not the issue, said the gaslighters. It never is.

And we accept it.

That’s how pervasive and pernicious the values of the MUTCDC are. That we the public don’t even see them as values anymore, or as a choice to be questioned. They just are.

Physical design changes to reduce vehicle speeds? No thanks. More signs and blinking lights please.

All while we continue to widen vehicle lanes, add capacity, slip lanes, overpasses and car infrastructure disguised as pedestrian infrastructure. And when enough monkey-brains understandably decide to switch from walking or biking to driving, we repeat the cycle and add even more capacity, widen more streets, at greater and greater cost every time.

Except the reality is that most of the newest generation of traffic engineers know all of this already. Yes, even those working at the City of Winnipeg. It’s the old-timers in charge at the very top who work to protect the status quo. They’re the ones who need re-educating (or retiring). It’s a big part of why no one wants to speak out:

“A city hall source, who asked to remain anonymous, said the problem in the public works department is “multi-faceted and systemic,” resulting from staff who resist reform because it would expose significant problems they have caused or ignored.”

Winnipeg Free Press, “Red Light, Green Light, No Oversight”, February 22, 2022

Yes, this is a systemic issue, not just in the City of Winnipeg, but in the entire profession. But let’s not forget our own role in this.

While young engineers may be afraid for their jobs, we, the public and the Councillors who represent us, don’t have to wait around. It’s true that it has been like this since before most of us were born, so why should any of us lay people know any different? Public opinion and “conventional wisdom” are always behind the times.

But we can educate ourselves now rather than latching on to outdated engineering concepts. We can demand better, right now. The engineers work for us, after all.

Come back tomorrow for Part 3, the final instalment, where we’ll examine a better way forward. One that will actually make our city and our neighbourhoods safer, not to mention more prosperous and financially sustainable.

Because financial mismanagement or not, we’ve allowed them to build us a transportation system that requires impossible amounts of money to maintain and operate. And no amount of savings to be found will change that.

Love you muchly,

Elmwood Guy