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Thursday, June 19, 2014

Accidents of Design

It is easy to jump to any number of rash conclusions regarding road safety after the recent string of accidents here in Montreal that has now seen three fatalities and at least two serious injuries. In the wake of such preventable deaths and unnecessary suffering, emotions invariably run high. Among the knee-jerk reactions thrown about recently, I’ve heard the call to ban trucks, as well as a call to ban cyclists; others have chosen to curse cars all to hell or find some other way to throw the blame about. None of this is particularly helpful. The fact remains that none of these modes of transport is about to disappear any time soon. Unfortunately neither is this sort of tragic occurrence: based on statistical averages, there will be about 400 pedestrian and cyclist deaths caused by automotive transport in Canada this year. Clearly, some sort of concerted shift in both design and behaviour is needed in order to improve safety. It’s pretty clear that some shifts are inevitable, and without proactive efforts to orchestrate a culture of safety, things could easily get worse before they get better.
The Kyotomotors approach to road safety naturally embraces active transport as a major piece of the puzzle, where one’s legs do the work. After all, doing the opposite by discouraging cycling would only make it more dangerous for the few who remain determined to ride the streets. What’s more, this path would lead us further away from the objective of reduced carbon emissions.
Car sharing and public transit add further layers of safety by way of reducing traffic volume, and giving more space to the active transport users. The presence of the latter, once it reaches a certain critical mass should (ideally) have an overall calming effect on the motorised vehicles that remain in the mix. But of course there is always a potential downside to all idealised scenarios, and this is no exception. If ever we are to achieve and sustain a significant and meaningful shift to broad-based active transport, as we must if only to combat climate change, then we have to prepare ourselves for a host of emergent traffic safety challenges.
This, my friends, is what loosely defines the theme of the present blog post and at least one or two to follow, and I would like to start by stepping back, and expressing my condolences to the loved-ones of the victims in the recent accidents alluded to at the outset here. And, by extension, I would like to express my sympathies to all of my readers who have been touched by the loss of someone close, due to poor road safety.
Fatal road accidents are most tragic because they are almost always random, and certainly preventable. 
While we can’t necessarily know for sure what happens in the final seconds leading up to such a fatality, we can make some interesting generalisations as to why we’ve created such a dangerous set of circumstances. So even if we can’t say if a given death was a freak instance of bad luck, the result of fool-hearty behaviour or that of criminal negligence, we can look at what underlies such unfortunate events. I am thinking specifically of the fact that for many decades we have invested extensively in a system of infrastructure and habitual behaviour that increases the likelihood of such tragedies: the very built environment makes it difficult and dangerous for active transport to share the road with commercial traffic and an inordinate number of personalised motor-vehicles.
So, looking past the specifics of any given scenario, we can generalise about why places like underpasses are so dangerous, and look at the underlying reasons as to how we got to where we are with urban design. There are many types of features, like underpasses, that were simply never conceived of for cyclists. Whole generations of planners appear to have engineered so much of the (aging) contemporary city (suburbs included) with the sole purpose of driving in mind. I suppose it’s because pretty much everyone was doing it: why ride a bike in the burgeoning age of the automobile? In other words – to be fair – why design for something that simply wasn’t on the radar?
This of course is really just the tip of the iceberg. Look a little closer, and we come face to face with the legacy of the so called “love affair” with the car. This is just a poetic and propagandistic way of explaining the place that the automotive fleet has come to occupy in our lives. The sheer space we have allocated to it is simultaneously geographical and physical; economic and political; and finally psychological and emotional – all of which speaks volumes to the underlying assumptions about freedom and progress that we associate with all things automotive.
The love affair with the automobile is so profound that we forgive its shortcomings, which are many. One of which of course is the staggering number of traffic fatalities over the past century involving pedestrians, cyclists, drivers and passengers alike. Further drawbacks involve victims of pollution, and climate change, as well as expropriation of arable land and the physical disintegration of neighbourhoods/ communities… And yet, the love affair persists, thanks in no small part to the marketing efforts of an industry that insists on trying to convince us that the emotional bond is real.
Historically, with the love affair firmly in place, we ploughed ahead and invested heavily in the car-centric way of life – a collective decision you might want to file under “it seemed like a good idea at the time”. And of course, with the physicality of this built environment (capital investment), came a re-shaping of the collective psychological landscape (emotional investment), which brings us back to the love affair, now amplified. The result is a positive feedback scenario that leads us to believe that more of the same is always good. This explains in part why so called economic development it invariably implies more sprawl, more driving, more consumption and more destruction of natural ecosystems. So, the build-up of urban environments during the heyday of  the car clearly was achieved to the detriment of bicycle and pedestrian safety, but it becomes clear that this is only a small part of the bigger problem related to this heavy investment in one particular living arrangement. The most tragic aspect of this unbridled commitment is that a suite of unforeseen limitations guarantees that the car-centric economic arrangement is simply unsustainable.
Now, you will hear me argue from time to time that modern industrial society is a type of ecosystem – not just because it’s a truth that gets ignored by most people most of the time, but because it serves up the crucial reminder that even our celebrated technological civilization is subject to the limits of Nature – another truth that is consistently ignored. It just happens to be the only ecosystem that managed to leverage the energy of fossil fuels, which is what sets it apart from both ecosystems and civilisations of the past. Whether this is “natural” or not would be a semantic debate I am unwilling to pursue here, but that this ecosystem has become destructive on an industrial scale is pretty clear to those of us who are paying attention. It is also worth noting that, like all ecosystems, the modern industrial type has limits, and is subject to negative feedback loops.
The list of limits is long, and includes the loss of arable land, and the supply of food and water required to sustain a given population. Many limits will likely play out on a timescale that will motivate only a few to change: if recent behaviour with respect to GHG is any indication, society does not turn on a dime. So Climate change – itself a potential limit on sprawl, only stands a chance of effecting a change in behaviour through the dreaded cataclysmic weather event. Another crucial limit on sprawl and to the economy as a whole, of course has to do with the very energy supply, especially petroleum. Lastly (though there are surely many others) another limit we face – less directly, yet I would argue ultimately also a limit of Nature – is the ability of a given municipality, province or state to go into debt to service new infrastructure.
Fortunately (or not), the petroleum factor represents the one limit that looms on the horizon that will inevitably have a much more immediate effect on the future of sprawl, and of cities, and how we choose to move about the landscape. Regular readers have heard me go on about peak oil before, so I’ll not go into the details again, but the intractable fact remains that cheap and abundant liquid fuel is an increasingly dwindling resource. Consequently, many people will simply be priced out of the market of suburban living and car ownership across the board, no matter what ideological views they hold dear to their hearts.
On the upside, the effects of this fundamental economic shift start rippling through the economy, the negative feedback effect takes place in at least two ways. On the one hand our behaviour will necessarily change, and on the other, more gradually, the design of our built environment will be adjusted accordingly.  Clearly, on both fronts these changes are underway already. Despite what the car companies would have you believe, the trend is as plain as the nose on Stephen Harper’s face, and no amount of hand waving, jingle singing or factory rebates is going to change that. We may not be able to turn on a dime in this instance either, but there is much we can do to make the transition to broad-based active transport less dangerous and more reliable. Over time, citizens will quietly – at their own pace – move  toward the Kyotomotors recipe of living in the more dense urban centres, adopting active transport habits to the best of their abilities, and will otherwise be faced with exploring the public- transit and shared-vehicle alternatives to individual car ownership.
As this trend inevitably gains traction we will all be faced with new challenges of co-existence, since the proportional use of the streets is destined to shift dramatically over time. The particulars of such a trend will likely be complex, and I hope to elaborate on this at a later date. In the meantime, just recognising the general scope of the trend is the first step. With respect to addressing safety issues for increasingly shared streets, we really must acknowledge that the number of cyclists on the road is only bound to increase dramatically in the long run. Designing public space accordingly will be one of the wisest moves a community could work for these days.
As far as the ongoing struggle to address carbon emissions goes, this is a hopeful projection. However, if in fact we can collectively achieve a meaningful level of broad-based active transport that I would characterise as desirable, we would inevitably have a whole new challenge of bicycle safety on our hands: On the one hand we will be faced with the legacy of the love affair with the car, and the culture of entitlement to the road that that entails (still very much a danger to be reckoned with); on the other hand we will also be faced with a particular mentality that characterises much of “bike culture” where the rule of and respect for law is fuzzy at best. On top of this dynamic is the emotional relationship between motorists and active transport users. Setting aside the fact that the two overlap considerably, there is still a potential polarisation that does occur, pitting one group against the other. Animosity and road rage in public space is clearly not going to contribute to the solutions that we’re looking for moving forward. As with all conflict, both sides have to assume some responsibility for its resolution. How best to mitigate the emergent and amplified dangers of our future public spaces will have to wait for the next Kyotomotors blog post…. Soon, I hope.