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Bad driving or poor design? A downtown Edmonton intersection is a case study

In 2020, many Edmontonians drove less as they began working from home and avoiding social gatherings. Fewer cars on the road led to far fewer collisions, injuries and fatalities, including for pedestrians and cyclists.

As vehicular traffic returned, those numbers shot back up ­— to higher levels than before, in some cases.

“Unsafe street design really tends to prioritize the speed and volume of vehicle traffic over minimizing risk of injury or collision to pedestrians, cyclists and other road users,” says Shannon Lohner, chair of Paths for People, a local transportation advocacy group.

Edmonton is designed to be navigated by automobile, but that design has safety implications for all road users — particularly those who aren’t cocooned in a 1,000-kilogram steel frame.

Pedestrians and cyclists often face challenges — or outright danger — while navigating an urban environment built with the needs of motorists top of mind, such as wide streets and intersections with high speed limits, few or distant safe crossings and narrow or missing sidewalks.

Edmonton is a physically large city with a low population density, so making it less car-centric is a slow and expensive process. But even newer road designs may not be as safe for non-drivers as advertised.

CBC News surveilled one downtown Edmonton intersection to see how road design can affect safety.

Gathering the data

The intersection of 100th Street and 102nd Avenue features a multi-modal design, meaning it accounts for different types of transportation. The Valley Line LRT shares 102nd Avenue with pedestrians, a two-way bike lane and a single one-way lane for cars, all largely without physical barriers.

CBC News recorded a 48-hour timelapse video of the intersection from Thursday, Feb. 29 to Saturday, March 2, then counted several types of driving infractions that were caught on tape. (Scroll to the bottom for the full methodology.)

In all, CBC News counted 381 infractions, almost half of which were instances when automobiles blocked the crosswalk or bike box.

“These numbers are surprising,” says Coun. Anne Stevenson, who represents Ward O-day’min, where the intersection is located.

“They’re very high. They certainly validate a lot of the feedback that I hear more anecdotally.”

Several design factors may contribute to the findings.

Signage around the intersection can be unclear or inconspicuous, especially in a visually busy area. Information on the road itself, such as crosswalk markings or pavement textures, can be obscured by snow — a recurring problem in a winter city.

A street is shown with bike lanes, a one-way single-lane roadway and LRT tracks.
The design of 102nd Avenue features dedicated two-way bike lanes and a one-way road for vehicular traffic alongside the LRT. A lack of clear signage may be one reason why drivers misuse the roadway. (Natasha Riebe/CBC)

Plastic reflective bollards, meant to prevent motorists from driving in the bike lanes, are removed in the wintertime to make snow removal easier. As a consequence, drivers may see two traffic lanes and instinctively choose the right-hand lane, which is for bikes.

Lohner describes the collected data as concerning, highlighting how many vehicles wind up in the bike lane in particular. They frequently cycle in the 102nd Avenue bike lane and often end up behind a car, or one is trailing them, they say.

“It can be quite scary and quite intimidating for people to be faced with a vehicle when that space is supposed to be for cyclists or for pedestrians,” Lohner says.

One prohibited manoeuvre included in the data — an illegal left turn from 102nd Avenue, across the LRT tracks — also carries significant risks for drivers themselves.

WATCH | Traffic safety issues observed at an Edmonton intersection: 

Traffic safety issues observed at an Edmonton intersection

14 hours ago

Duration 0:33

CBC News captured and analyzed 48 hours of vehicle traffic at the intersection of 100 Street and 102 Avenue.

The City of Edmonton provided CBC News with data collected by TransEd, which is responsible for the Valley Line LRT. In the first quarter of 2024, along the entire Valley Line network, there were seven motor-vehicle collisions and 36 near-misses that required the train operator to use the emergency brake.

Most of those incidents involved motorists “illegally turning left or right on a red light,” said Matthew Ivany, acting director of transportation planning and design and integrated infrastructure services, in a statement sent through a city spokesperson.

Remaking 102nd Avenue

The design and redevelopment of 102nd Avenue, east of 102nd Street, was part of the Valley Line Southeast project. The intersection was completed in 2019, although LRT service opened three years behind schedule on Nov. 4, 2023.

In 2022, however, city council narrowly passed a motion to keep the redeveloped stretch of 102nd Avenue closed to cars as a pilot project. The pilot ended in February 2023 and cars have shared the road ever since.

“There could be a bit of an adjustment period as people are learning how to use the corridor correctly,” Stevenson says. But the data collected by CBC News “certainly raises questions about some of the design elements.”

After the pilot ended, council passed a motion — brought forward by Stevenson — that called for city administration to create a report evaluating 102nd Avenue after six months of Valley Line operations. Stevenson says that report is expected in the fall.

The City of Edmonton declined to make anyone available for an interview and did not comment on CBC News’ findings. In Ivany’s statement, he said the review of 102nd Avenue will determine the “next steps.”

TransEd designed 102nd Avenue, based on a reference design the city produced a decade ago — before the city rolled out its Complete Streets Design and Construction standards in 2018, Ivany said.

The city’s approach has changed considerably from what it once was, Ivany said, such as designing streets for their posted speed limit. In the past, roads were designed for a speed 10 km/h higher than the posted limit.

Design a key component

In 2015, Edmonton became the first major Canadian city to adopt Vision Zero, a traffic safety project founded in Sweden in the 1990s that aims to achieve a road system without fatalities or serious injuries. Its central tenet is that the physical well-being of road users should not be sacrificed for other objectives.

The rate of combined injuries and fatalities — which includes casualties from any motor vehicle collision, including pedestrians and cyclists — has steadily fallen in Edmonton since at least 2010, municipal data shows. But in 2022, the most recent year for which public data is available, the figure was 4.42 per 1,000 residents — the highest since 2013.

The City of Edmonton, Stevenson and Lohner, of Paths for People, agree that road design is a key component to safety and Edmonton needs to design infrastructure for a variety of transportation options.

“People tend to not really think too much about [design] until you start to realize how big of an impact it has on your day-to-day life,” Lohner says.

“The way that a street is designed, the way that a sidewalk is designed, really impacts how users will interact with it. It impacts how fast drivers want to go. It impacts how safe pedestrians feel. It impacts how safe cyclists are.”

Stevenson acknowledges that, while changes to the city’s road designs are critical for safety and absorbing future growth, such conversations often draw out strong emotions.

“How we get from Point A to Point B in our daily lives is a huge part of what we do,” Stevenson says. “When there are changes, when there are delays or traffic, that’s very frustrating.

“I think where there’s tension is that, for so long, we have privileged one mode of transportation over all the others,” she says. “For me, it’s really about rebalancing rather than taking away.”

Using a 48-hour timelapse video of the intersection recorded between approximately 10 a.m. MT on Thursday, Feb. 29, and 10 a.m. on Saturday, Mar. 2, CBC News manually counted occurrences of several types of driving infractions:

  • Making a left-hand turn from eastbound 102nd Avenue across the LRT tracks.
  • Fully or partially blocking a crosswalk or bike turn box while stopped at a red light. (A vehicle had to have its front wheels fully inside the crosswalk or green turn box in order to be counted.)
  • Turning right on a red light.
  • Driving in the bike lanes on 102nd Avenue.
  • Blocking the bike lanes on 102nd Avenue while waiting to turn right.
  • Driving the wrong way on 102nd Avenue.

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