Dear Winnipeg

A Fun Blog About Infrastructure and Municipal Finance

The One Ring

Dear Winnipeg,

On September 8th, 2022, a healthy, independent 90-year-old woman was crossing the street in her neighbourhood of North Kildonan, on the way to one of the many stops in her daily routine. It would be her last time.

A week later in hospital, she would succumb to her injuries, simply the latest out of many victims of traffic violence.

Oh sure. As is routine, the police concluded that the incident was “not criminal in nature“, and the few news media who reported on it were quick to note that she was “crossing between parked cars“, in yet another stellar example of blaming the victim. As though her choosing to cross Henderson Hwy at Oakland Ave that day made her some kind of deviant, somehow deserving of her fate.

But we’ll get back to that. Because make no mistake, the blame rests entirely on the traffic engineers who designed this street.

First, we need to go back to the beginning, to the beginning of an engineer’s career.

In Canada, graduates of engineering programs participate in a solemn ceremony known as the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, where they receive a pinky ring as a symbol of their profession.

Image of 6 hands in a circle, all wearing engineering rings, with a Power Rangers logo superimposed on the image.

And while this may seem kind of weird or cult-y or ridiculous to outsiders, engineers take it very seriously, and for good reason.

You see, the ceremony was created in response to the Quebec Bridge disaster, which failed twice during its construction due to engineering errors, killing dozens of people, before finally opening in 1919.

Three years later, seven past-presidents of the Engineering Institute of Canada decided together that there needed to be a ceremony and standard of ethics devised for graduating engineers, in order to avoid a repeat of the Quebec Bridge disaster. Budding engineers would swear an oath, and receive an iron ring, which was to be worn on the pinky of the engineer’s dominant hand, so that every engineering schematic they worked on would come in contact with the purposefully jagged edges of the ring, as a constant reminder to the engineer of their responsibility to society.

Lore has it the rings were forged out of the iron wreckage of the original bridge, although in reality that’s highly unlikely. In any case, today, most rings are made of stainless steel.

As British Columbia’s Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure puts it:

“At the ceremony, those involved recite an oath and are given the iron ring to represent the high standard of professional conduct and ethics required by an engineer. The engineering ring was created to symbolize the faith that people place in the structures designed by engineers. It’s an engineer’s ‘precious’ reminder of the lives who depend on their work.”

— BC Ministry of Transportation, “National Engineering and Geoscience Month: Fellowship of the Ring”, March 1st, 2012

So, yeah. Engineers take their ring, and their oath, seriously. Usually. Mostly. Sometimes.

Just not this time. Or any time there are traffic deaths really.

I’ve written before about how traffic engineers willfully disregard the life and safety of people on foot through their design choices.

Consider this the sequel.

According to the traffic engineers at the Global Designing Cities Initiative, urban streets should have safe crossings every 80-100m at a minimum, and that spacing them more than 200m apart “should be avoided, as they create compliance and safety issues”.

That’s because research has shown that most people won’t walk more than 20 or 40 seconds out of their way to get to a crossing, or about 40-50m. So spacing crossings every 80-100m means that you’re never more than 40-50m away from one. That’s just basic human behavioral psychology. It applies to everyone, young, old and in between, from all walks of life, which is why you’ll find people driving endlessly around a mall parking lot to find the absolute closest spot, instead of walking the extra few steps from the first empty spot they see. People don’t want to walk any further than they feel they have to. That’s just humans being human beings. [Say that ten times fast!]

It’s important to note that some of the most widely cited research on this is well over 15 years old. You know, like before the iPhone even existed. Like, there are engineers who will be entering the engineering profession this year who weren’t even in kindergarten yet. My point is, this is not new information. And given that engineers must complete annual continuing education to maintain their credentials, it’s not unreasonable to expect that they know this already.

So it should come as a shock to absolutely no one, especially traffic engineers, that this woman decided to cross Henderson Hwy at Oakland Ave (“between parked cars”), rather than walk to the nearest designated crossing.

As it turns out, she tried to cross at pretty much exactly the 100m mark from either designated crossing, exactly like traffic engineering principles would predict. Spacing crossings more than 200m apart “should be avoided, as they create compliance and safety issues”. Indeed.

So why wasn’t there an additional crossing for her at Oakland Ave? For the same reason there aren’t additional crossings all the way up and down Henderson: engineers prioritize traffic flow over human lives.

Spend a bit of time observing people on Henderson, and you’ll find people crossing every 100m, almost like clockwork, despite there only being designated crossings every 200m-500m.

Do some observing in winter, and you’ll find evidence of people crossing Henderson pretty much anywhere they like.

Image of median on Henderson Hwy in winter, showing footprints in the snow at various places.

And that’s because of a little thing engineers call “trip generators”.

You see, humans aren’t chickens, content to cross the road for its own sake. Humans need a reason to cross. And those reasons are things like trying to get to a shop, or school, or home. Engineers call these things “trip generators” because they are the reason that any given person will make a trip.

And within 50m of where this woman was crossing, you’ll find all of these:

  • apartment buildings
  • houses
  • law office
  • music school
  • offices
  • bakery
  • sewing machine repair
  • home decor
  • music store
  • used movies and music
  • tacos
  • karate lessons
  • chiropractor
  • coffee shop
  • insurance
  • pharmacy
  • tanning booths
  • florist
  • counselling

That’s not even counting all the informal trip generators, like this picnic table off to the side, where seniors routinely gather for coffee in the morning, weather permitting.

Photo of picnic table near Oakland Ave where seniors gather for coffee.

Simply put: give humans a reason to cross the street, but no safe way to do so, and they will cross anyway.

But dare to ask a traffic engineer to add the necessary crossings or slow traffic speeds, and you’ll get pushback. Because traffic.

Let’s be very clear about this: that is a design choice. Prioritizing traffic flow over the safety of people crossing is a design choice made by engineers who swore an oath and wear an iron ring to “represent the high standard of professional conduct and ethics required by an engineer”.

How ethical of them. [Insert eyeroll here.]

Some engineers would want to hide behind the guidelines established by the Transportation Association of Canada (TAC). We’ve already established why even TAC says that’s not a valid excuse, but the part that’s even worse is that the design of Henderson isn’t even TAC-compliant. For example, TAC’s “risk score” for much of Henderson Hwy is way too high to support the current speed limit of 60 km/h. And there’s reason to believe that’s the case for many of our city’s other stroads, like St. Anne’s Rd, Pembina Hwy, Leila Ave, and Main St, where many other people have been killed while crossing.

But are engineers speaking up?

Nope. Because traffic.

Choosing traffic flow over human lives is a design choice. And that design choice led to a death. So who’s to blame for this death?

Consider this: as part of the ceremony, in addition to reading the Ritual of the Calling of an Engineer, many engineers will also recite a few verses from Rudyard Kipling’s Hymn of the Breaking Strain, which emphasizes that the blame for deaths is not to be laid on the materials (or the users), but on the designer: the engineer.

And yet, engineers continually choose traffic speed over human lives.

A screenshot from the Lord of the Rings movie, depicting Frodo being choked by Gollum, with Frodo saying "But you swore, you swore on the precious!"
Just like Frodo, the public has a right to feel betrayed.

I recognize that some engineers might fear the complaints that often come from members of the public, or Council, due to any changes they might make to a street. But an engineer obviously wouldn’t compromise themselves to design a vehicular bridge out of pretzels and chocolate, just because the public demanded it. They would take it upon themselves to educate the public on the merits of building bridges out of steel instead of dessert ingredients.

For leadership on this, we need to look no further than the City of Selkirk. Adding to an already long list of things they are doing better than we are, they recently released a great video to explain to the public the new safety upgrades included in their downtown’s Eveline St reconstruction. [Notice the iron ring!]

Engineers can blame Council or the public, but I have yet to hear a single presentation from our City’s traffic engineers, putting forward their professional recommendation to prioritize lives over traffic flow.

And unless engineers are willing to do that, the iron ring is worth about as much as anything you can get out of a Cracker Jack box.

Now, maybe there are some traffic engineers reading right now who think I’m completely wrong about this. And that’s great.

So go ahead then. Change my mind.

Love,

Elmwood Guy