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  • Writer's pictureMatthieu Gagnon

Getting people to care about road safety in the suburbs

This post is based on a response to an email exchange with the Convent Glen Orléans Woods Community Association. I did my best to make it more of a blog but I am new at this so there may be room for improvements. Please let me know how to improve in the comments.

Based on my experience riding in Orléans and looking at the complaints that people have on FB, I think people in our community want driving faster as a priority over road safety. Driving is inherently unsafe and perceived to be faster. If people had safety as a priority, they would not be driving in the first place because of the risk to themselves, others and to the environment especially when it comes to trips less than 5km. If people prioritized safety, we would have people clamouring for a 20 km/h speed on residential streets when we can't even get them to follow a 40 km/h speed limit (Admittedly having residential streets as wide as a major downtown road is a problem. Bank Street is 8.35m wide and Explorer Lane is 8.34m based on attached Google Map measurements.). Huge SUVs and trucks are also an indication to me that people don't care about the safety of those around them. People also honk at people outside of cars whenever they slow them in the slightest which is an indication that people care about speed and not safety.

Image showing Bank Street in Ottawa where the road width is 8.35 meters as measured in Google Maps
Image showing Explorer Lane in Ottawa where the road width is 8.34 meters as measured in Google Maps

The question is, to me, "How do we make people care?". Let's start with why people don't care about safety. There was a study that shows that people have a huge moral blind spot regarding how car usage impacts others which researchers called "motornormativy" and that the internet calls "carbrain". Cars are essentially the new smoking but harder to curb because they are perceived as needed in our society mostly because we built our environments to make sure that they are and we keep subsidizing car usage through toll free roads and parking policies. Car propaganda has been very successful at convincing people and governments that cars are great. I think we need to hijack the issues of the day like affordability, crumbling city services, housing and climate change (admittedly, I don't think the majority of people care a lot about that one if it means significant action on their part) to try and get people to push for alternatives to cars.

For affordability, car usage is ridiculously expensive to individuals but people typically don't consider the cost of debt, depreciation, storage (how much of your property is dedicated to car storage), municipal taxes dedicated to roads and maintenance when they think about the price of car ownership. They only think about the price of gas. The average cost of car ownership for Canadians is over $1000 per car per month. I can literally replace my bike every month and still come ahead of a car. I think if we try to craft a message that better urban design would reduce the need for a car so a household would need one car per household instead of one car per adult which seems to be common if I look down the street (I could use StatsCan data to calculate but I should probably do some work at some point). Safe streets allow people to choose another mode of transportation which can really help people feel richer than they do now.

The cost of car centric infrastructure is also ridiculously expensive. If you look at road projects, the amounts are astronomical while we are pinching pennies for trivial amounts like CA insurance, parks and tree planting. There's also the opportunity costs of surface parking lots. For example, the property at St-Joseph and Orléans that includes the parking lot, the little plaza where the real estate agency and the Pizza Hut is valued at $4.1 million for 3.4 A while the plaza with Connor's Irish Pub and the big red building is valued at $5.8 million at 1.9 A (I strongly recommend those interested to check this MPAC website out). The second property brings in a lot more municipal taxes for a lot less area and it's still mostly parking lots. Our taxes are high and our services are crumbling because we spend a ton of money on making sure people can drive everywhere and have parking. Safe streets allow people to choose another mode of transportation and reduce the costs to the city.

If we look at housing, it's easy to see why single family homes are a problem in terms of land use which leads to sprawl which is hugely expensive to maintain and SFH are also super expensive to maintain both in terms of time and money. When density is proposed, the main objection that is inevitable brought up is increased traffic and parking. Building parking significantly increases the cost of building housing. Safe streets allow people to choose another mode of transportation while allowing us to build more housing that will allow our aging population to age in the community and allow our kids to live in the community instead of the "drive until you qualify" which people do now.

I am not going to bother with diving into climate change because it's too obvious that cars and car infrastructure are bad for the climate and that safe streets allow people to choose another mode of transportation which is good for the climate.

We need to tailor a message to make people aware that a lot of the problems they are facing are related to car-centric urban design. Then we have to give them the desire to push for something better which to me means fighting apathy which is hard. Then we need to give people the knowledge of how to navigate the city without a car by showing them that a grocery trip is actually better on a bike or on foot in a lot of cases to try and get momentum to push for infrastructure. Then we have to get the city to build the infrastructure (which they are) which likely means fighting the resistance that will inevitably happen when parking or lanes are taken away (see the fight for the Orléans Overpass).

I think it's a lot of work but that's why I joined the CA. I want to make Orléans better for my kids. 

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