Unsafe crosswalks have city talking about legal implications: FOIP by Tim Querengesser

The City of Edmonton is discussing potential legal implications connected to unsafe crosswalks, a recent Freedom of Information request I have received reveals. 

After filing the request in June and receiving it today, I am able to report that 59 pages of documents the public is not allowed to see – because they are classified as privileged information – exist within City of Edmonton administration.

These documents were found after I requested the following through Freedom of Information: "Records of discussions between Transportation Officials and Legal Counsel regarding potential legal liability to the City of Edmonton as a result of documented inadequacies, safety deficiencies and lacking safety designs in crosswalks."

For context, in April, City of Edmonton administration shared a report to city council that showed 659 dangerous crosswalks across the city. The report also detailed how fixes for these crosswalks would cost $58 million.

Many noted at the time that our current pace upgrading these crosswalks – we spend roughly $2 million annually on crosswalk upgrades – would mean Edmonton will take 29 years to make these crosswalks adequately safe. Some questioned whether this situation, where the city has admitted unsafe condition for pedestrian infrastructure, exposed the City of Edmonton to legal liability in the event of a pedestrian being hurt or killed in one of these crosswalks.

The conversation at the time was amplified by the death, earlier in April, of 16-year-old Chloe Wiwchar, who a driver hit and killed as she walked in a crosswalk with signaled safety features on Kingsway. 

The questions about legal liability are natural because other cities are facing them and even paying for them. Because evidence from multiple jurisdictions shows that drivers who hit and injure or kill pedestrians rarely face serious charges, many have turned to the civil courts. Recently, California courts ruled that pedestrians injured in crosswalks can sue cities in civil courts, based on cities having an obligation to having safe property. In other states, that's already happening. In Missouri, a couple injured while crossing a street in an area identified by Jefferson City officials as dangerous is suing for $2.25 million. In Hawaii, a man hit by a driver while in a crosswalk recently won a suit and received more than $11 million in damages.

The City of Edmonton claims all 59 pages generated with my information request are privileged information (essentially, discussions between lawyers and clients) and therefore I and anyone else can't see them. To be crystal clear, that means there is only evidence of documents, but no evidence that the city is concerned about this situation or facing any potential lawsuits or doing anything other than simply talking about it. 



Greyhound leaving western Canada should be seen as a crisis not a news story by Tim Querengesser

Greyhound Canada is axing its bus service throughout western Canada. This is extremely unsettling news. Those who will suffer most from this are already marginalized. The announcement should very much be seen as a crisis of mobility and safety.

On Monday, the company whose name has been part of my own life and desire to move about North America – from riding the Greyhound bus to Toronto as a pre-teen to see family to riding it weekly during my undergraduate and graduate degrees, to a bizarre trip across Florida – announced it is ceasing service in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and all routes in British Columbia excluding a connection between Vancouver and Seattle run by U.S. Greyhound.

Photo: Frank Deanrdo/Flickr

Photo: Frank Deanrdo/Flickr

The company had already announced that all routes to the Yukon are to be dropped as well. Ontario and Quebec will soon be the only areas of Canada where Greyhound service remains. The company notes ridership has dropped more than 40 per cent since 2010. 

We must not forget that significant discussion about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls focuses on realities on the ground, such as transportation options. In British Columbia, for example, the 'Trail of Tears' between Prince George and Prince Rupert has seen many Indigenous women disappear along it. At many of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's meetings, transportation options – or the lack of them – between Indigenous communities in Canada's remote regions was raised as a large contributing factor to the lack of safety for people needing to move about their country. 

Canada is a large country and within it are hundreds upon hundreds of Indigenous communities, often in remote regions. Greyhound has functioned for these communities as an option to get around, to leave bad situations, to seek out new opportunities, to see loved ones. Without this service, people will revert to the only options they have – dangerous hitchhiking or even staying put when they don't want to.

This should really be viewed as a crisis, not a news story. If we are working to prevent tragedy we need to realize this change will affect those who are most vulnerable in Canada. A recent study found that hitchhikers in northern B.C. are more likely to be Indigenous and more likely to face sexual assault

In response to falling service and safety concerns, the B.C. government has launched a shuttle-bus service for the area and its residents. And here in Edmonton, Coun. Scott McKeen pushed a motion forward earlier this year to explore expanding bus service connections between Edmonton and the Enoch Cree First Nation.

We now need this ingenuity and response on a western-Canada scale. 




Edmonton prepares to embarrass itself internationally on pedestrian safety by Tim Querengesser

Starting on July 9, Edmonton will host a four-day International Conference on Traffic Safety at the Shaw Conference Centre. And to prepare, and to underline that words are mostly what we do here rather than actual action, less than a few blocks from the conference centre, Edmonton has allowed walking to become something people choose to do with traffic.

Edmonton is a great place to get in some unplanned running – which this guy is doing in order to walk through the downtown. Clearly he's feeling the Vision Zero love. Photo: Tim Querengesser 

Edmonton is a great place to get in some unplanned running – which this guy is doing in order to walk through the downtown. Clearly he's feeling the Vision Zero love. Photo: Tim Querengesser 

The situation was bad enough over the past few months as the demolition crew that took down the Bank of Montreal building at 101 Street and 102 Avenue apparently managed to significantly damage the sidewalk in front of the land parcel, closing the sidewalk on the east side of 101 Street. Many have emailed people within the city and have shared with me the responses they have received, which show that there is not a high level of concern about the situation – all the correct permits to close the sidewalk are in place, apparently. No pedestrian detour has been created. Nothing to see here.

What has made this situation perverse, however, is that now, a half block north of the BMO site, the sidewalk outside our main commercial area, City Centre Mall, is closed on the west side of the street. What this means in theory is a person would have to cross 101 Street three times in order to walk to several destinations if they were walking southeast. Again, no pedestrian detour has been created.

The result in practice, as I observed last night while standing there for three minutes, is that people are now walking with traffic, literally in the vehicle lanes (which of course have not been largely affected) both in front of the BMO site and now to the north, on the other side of the road, in order to walk around these sidewalk closures. It's quite the feat for the first large city in Canada to adopt Vision Zero principles. Watching people navigate this space while huge city buses squeeze through it is frightening. Someone will get hurt.  

One can only hope the resulting embarrassment this will create when outsiders have a look and point this out will sting.

The International Conference on Traffic Safety will feature presentations from several experts from Sweden, which has led the way on Vision Zero, a talk by Jane Terry from the U.S. Safety Council, a talk called "Safe System in Urban Environments: Catering to Vulnerable Road Users" by Colin Brodie, from New Zealand, as well as a keynote by Anders Lie, a Swedish administrator with more than 20 years experience pushing for Vision Zero.  

I sincerely hope all of our esteemed guests go for a stroll in our downtown while they're here. 

Why Edmonton needs to consider creating an urban growth boundary by Tim Querengesser

This past week, Edmonton's inability to place real value on its land has become plain. First, the provincial government doubled-down on car-based sprawl by kicking $100 million of public money into widening the just-completed Anthony Henday ring road, in effect subsidizing further wasteful, expensive sprawl in the southwest for generations to come. And then, almost at the same time, with no apparent irony or comparison, discussion about what to do with the Coliseum lands, a massive brownfield parcel right in the city centre that's already serviced by an expensive LRT system, have ranged from comical to tragic. One suggestion that nearly made me scream: let's put a parking lot on it.

So, it won't surprise you that I think the value Edmonton puts on land is broken and that this is preventing many other things Edmonton residents say they want. Our planners and thinkers treat land like it's endless, free and easy and they seem unbothered when it sits empty, idle and unused. And we pay the price for all this. We can't seem to incentivize meaningful infill development, or more than a handful of urban areas. Our downtown is an increasingly modern and vertical metropolis surrounded by surface parking lots. And at any point in the city, within a 10-minute drive from wherever you may be, sits an industrial land park that is, at best, used to only a portion of its capacity.

Sprawlin' sprawlin' sprawlin', keep your city sprawlin'. Photo: Flickr/Mack Male

Sprawlin' sprawlin' sprawlin', keep your city sprawlin'. Photo: Flickr/Mack Male

When one makes an observation about how Edmonton doesn't value land, as I often do, the default reaction people have is to compare Edmonton with Vancouver. There, the argument goes, horizontal development (or sprawl) is limited by the ocean and by the mountains. Edmonton doesn't have mountains or an ocean, these people say, so sprawl and Edmonton is just inevitable. 

Well I say this is bunk. Many other cities surrounded by swathes of developable land have nonetheless decided that the best way to build compact, livable cities cities that redevelop their former industrial sites quickly into retail areas or housing, or offer walkable neighbourhoods, or build housing options beyond greenfield suburbs is to create an urban growth boundary.

Edmonton needs to consider this. And fiscal conservatives should be screaming for it. Here's why.

Back in the early 1970s, London, Ontario, predicted that it would hit half a million people by today and that it would do so within the newly annexed land it had just acquired to grow. Fast forward to today and the city is only 350,000 or so people and yet it has sprawled well beyond those original annexations. London's response? Over the past few decades it has started to re-evaluate how it values land. And, most importantly, it has started to limit growth to incentivize this re-valuation. Or, in short, it has created an urban growth boundary.

Since 2008, London has developed nearly 40 per cent of its population growth into housing in its developed areas. That's nearly double the rate Edmonton just recently been able to hit. Somehow, London, a city that's just one third the size of Edmonton, sees actual value in smart growth rather than dumb growth. And yet if we were to ask which city would be more fiscally conservative and averse to waste, I'm going to suggest most would think it was Edmonton.

The trick London has figured out is valuing land. The city has released a plethora of thinking (more reading: here) on land value and I say value in a sense beyond cash value that's eye opening for an Edmonton reader simply because such studies are few and far between here. Indeed, London ran a scenario recently to examine how it will absorb the 200,000 people it expects will move to the city over the next 50 years.

It looked at three different uses for land. The first was to allow unlimited sprawl. The second, or compact model, was to keep the city within its existing boundaries. And the third was to limit growth but allow some greenfield development. It was called a hybrid.


The sprawl model, London argued, would result in 70 per cent of new housing units being single detached houses. Most of the growth would be in new greenfield neighbourhoods. To accommodate this growth, more than 6,400 hectares of greenfield land would be needed -- equivalent to the entire city of Waterloo, Ontario. The cost for the development -- for new infrastructure, schools, fire halls: $4.2 billion.

The compact model, London argued, would be far different. This approach would result in just 30 per cent single detaced houses, with 35 per cent townhouse and mid-rise and 35 per cent high rise. Most single detached houses would be built in greenfield areas available within the existing boundaries, but most other housing would be in existing neighbourhoods. Cost: $452 million, or about a tenth of the sprawl model.

The hybrid model would see 50 per cent of new homes be single detached in greenfield suburbs, with 23 per cent mid rise and townhouse, and 27 per cent high rise. It would require about 1,100 hectares of new sprawl. Cost: about $890 million.

I don't think I have to underline that Edmonton is growing using the sprawl model. It is wasteful and expensive. It leaves large pockets of land empty. It confounds development. It de-values housing. It exchanges the promise of affordability today for higher taxes for everyone tomorrow.

It's broken.

The Canadian Studies side of me (unknown quirk about me: I have a master's degree in Canadian Studies) can't help but note that much of the Canadian west was settled using a program that essentially gave land away to those who promised to farm it, as well as keep out those pesky, expansionist Americans and marginalize the people whose land it really was, the Indigenous nations already there. But perhaps that's just a bit too meta. Surely, in 2018, land can be worth something in Edmonton just like it is in most other cities in Canada? 

One way to change this thinking is to discuss, debate and consider creating an urban growth boundary.