The City of Toronto, its various architects and consultants, and what passes for the newspaper intelligentsia in this town need to get something through their faddish, ideology-addled heads: Shared streets or naked streets or home zones or woonerfs are lethally dangerous to blind people and, because they also illegally discriminate against the blind, cannot ever be constructed here and won’t be.
I covered this topic before. There are a few variations in the shared-streets typology, but the most important feature is the elimination of graded sidewalks.
Some shared streets run at a single elevation with mixed traffic. (That means exactly one street that everyone uses, with no sidewalk or anything other than one lonely road.)
Other variants, as in the proposed John St. redevelopment, have sidewalks with ramped (“rolling”) curbs.
The point is to intermingle car, bike, and pedestrian traffic on the principle that motorists will, possibly for the first time, be scared shitless of mowing down a pedestrian or a bicyclist and will, again possibly for the first time, exercise extreme caution to keep that from happening.
In reality, shared streets produce a lawless and disordered onslaught of bicyclists and motorists. That onslaught does nothing but frighten pedestrians. Shared streets expose bicyclists and pedestrians to fear of being run over by cars. Shared streets only “work” when everyone is scared shitless.
Marginalization of the car is central to the argument for shared streets, which represent a well-dressed, espresso-sipping, European-style surge in the war on the car. There really is a war on the car and the car has to lose. But the actual war waged by advocates of shared streets is a war on the blind.
And that’s exactly what the City of Toronto plans to wage on blind pedestrians using John St., slated for a “revitalization.” Shared streets have also been proposed for the West Don Lands.
Why shared streets are dangerous
Blind people who use canes and/or guide dogs to get around absolutely must have a raised curb shaped exactly the way today’s curbs are shaped. They need that raised edge (with a sharp corner) because:
Cane users tap and slide the cane to determine the edge of the sidewalk. If unable to do that, a blind person can and will walk right into traffic. Of course that person could listen for traffic, but in a shared street much of the traffic consists of effectively silent bicycles, and in any event it isn’t a blind person’s responsibility to listen like a safecracker just to stay alive.
Guide dogs are trained to stop at curbs. They’re also trained not to lead humans right into oncoming traffic, but that’s a two-step system, i.e., a system with a backup (if there’s a curb, then stop, but if there isn’t a curb and there’s traffic, also stop). Remove one of these failsafes and guide dogs can be expected to make a mistake and continue to lead a person into traffic.
If, as in the case of a shared street, there’s no sidewalk or there’s a sidewalk with no raised curb with a sharp corner, there is no way for a cane user to find the edge of the sidewalk and no way for a guide dog to stop at that same edge. The result is blind people could walk or be led right into traffic, which, by definition, is coming from all directions and is an unpredictable mix of motor vehicles, quiet bicycles, and quiet, high-speed, projectile-like E-bikes.
The renderings provided for John St. show that the pedestrian path nearest to what should be a curb is impeded by trees and benches. Those will have to be moved.
In addition, faddish city planners often take shared streets as an opportunity to impose Dickensian street pavings, like cobblestones, which make the surface impassable to manual-wheelchair users, people with walkers, and pretty much anybody who uses braces or crutches or might catch a toe on a raised cobblestone. In a preserved historic landscape like the Distillery District, those defects are tolerable (and some paved sidewalks are already in place there). In a brand-new development, anything other than pavement as smooth as what we have constitutes an intentional attack on people with certain mobility impairments.
Shared streets are pretty much lose-lose for large numbers of disabled people. But gosh, they’re so cool.
Shared streets make architects and planners look smart and European
Shared streets are a fashionable idea that Canadian developers propose because it makes them seem ever so European. And they just love to use the Dutch word for the arrangement, woonerf.
Dylan Reid of Spacing (more on them shortly) epitomized this philosophy, apparently without irony:
The naked street has the best kind of European appeal – not the patronizing, we’re-more-refined-than-you kind of European ethos, but rather the innovative, daring, on-the-edge-yet-grounded-in-technique European design æsthetic you get in Italian fashion, British architecture, French food, German engineering.
And, apparently, Dutch mayhem against the blind.
Whenever a civic planner or architect proposes a shared street, they’re showing off for each other and for future clients. Shared streets are a positioning statement in a marketplace of ideas. They’re also a complete non-starter because they can kill off blind people.
Fashionable journalists are the most dangerous boosters of shared streets
While city planners and architects have the potential to actually implement and construct shared streets, journalists and critics have an arguably greater power – propagandizing shared streets and giving cover to shared-street apologists. They too are trying to sound smart – trying to impress each other, to seem European and au courant.
“How streets look good naked,” Debra Black, Toronto Star, 2010.01.20:
The woonerf has no separate sidewalks or traffic signage, but lots of retail and greenery, and auto traffic is expected to travel very slowly – even walking pace. It represents a kind of organized chaos where everyone – car, pedestrian and cyclist – must pay attention to the others and share the same street without boundaries…. There are no signs, no traffic lights, no speed bumps in these “naked streets.” They are designed so pedestrians, shoppers and school kids all share the street with vehicles, thus dethroning the car as the king of the city. […]
“We’re all pedestrians,” said. “The pedestrian realm has to be dealt with. If we’re not dealing with pedestrian safety, we’re putting them at risk, and that’s unconscionable.”
But with the John St. redevelopment, Adam Vaughan, the area city councillor, advocates saddling blind pedestrians with lethal risk. I trust he also finds that “unconscionable.”
“Woonerf: It’s Dutch for smart city-building,” Christopher Hume, Toronto Star, 2010.03.14:
“There’ll be a slight grade change to show where the curb would be,” says Glaisek. “We’re probably using stones to mark it. It’s a visual treatment that makes it known to drivers that that they are guests.” […]
“Visual treatments” are next to useless to visually-impaired people and actually useless to the blind.
So what is a woonerf exactly? Picture a regular street, but narrow, minus a curb, finished with pavers instead of asphalt.
“John Street revitalization plans in the works” (online)/“John Street beautification plans are at a fork in the road” (print), Lisa Rochon, Globe and Mail, 2011.07.02:
Two proposals designed by the Planning Partnership are being floated around City Hall and at public consultations. But only one – let’s call it Option A – is serious enough to be constructed.
That scheme widens the sidewalks and creates much lower “rolling” curbs so that the typical demarcation between sidewalk and roadway is lessened…. Trees would be introduced on the west side and a double allée of trees – possibly disease-resistant elm trees – would line the east side of John with generous, people-friendly sidewalks measuring 9.5 metres…. There’s room for café terraces, for pedestrians, for people on bikes, as well as cars. […]
The other , Option B, has been to satisfy the city’s transportation department, which still seems stuck on a 1950s interpretation of streets as strictly, efficiently car-dominated. In that version, the sidewalks are narrower, the curb is noticeable and the trees are minimized.
Yeah, and it won’t kill off blind people the way snipers pick off Afghan rebels.
Shared streets result in illegal discrimination
A built environment that places one identifiable group at lethal risk – people with a certain disability – instantly makes that environment illegal under the Ontario Human Rights Code.
But it must be stated that getting mowed down by a joyrider on an E-bike or the entitled driver of a Prius isn’t the only outcome. Blind people may learn of the lethal risk involved in using a shared street, like John St., and simply never ever go there by themselves.
The effect is to erect a de facto NO BLIND PEOPLE sign at either end of the street (and at all intersections, which presumably are also unmarked and tactually unrecognizable). A NO BLIND PEOPLE sign is exactly the same as a NO JEWS or a NO BLACKS sign and is also illegal, even if an actual sign were never posted. Shared streets amount to constructive discrimination against people with visual impairments.
No amount of training or “familiarization” solves the problem
There is no training that could possibly be administered that will solve the problem. Cane and guide-dog users absolutely must have a defined curb exactly like the ones in use today. The failed shared-streets experiment in Blackpool, England, shows that city governments will respond to the actual facts about the dangers posed to blind people with vague plans to “familiarize” blind people with the new layout.
It’s a non-starter: Cane and guide-dog users cannot handle a curbless sidewalk or a mixed-use street with no sidewalk. Even if they could, no city government could train every blind person, including city visitors and one-time-only road users.
Other countries have made this mistake; why us?
The Dutch model of the woonerf, like hashish cafés and large populations of radical Muslims, is something that should stay safely far away in the Netherlands. Sadly, it hasn’t. The U.K. has spent years toying with the shared-streets model, to the continued fury of organizations like Guide Dogs for the Blind, which has had to take legal action to prevent faddish city bureaucrats from endangering the lives of blind people.
My friends and I will, quite simply, sue your asses off
I will not stand by while a city government, architects, and contractors conspire to install even a single street that lethally imperils blind people and functionally excludes them.
If plans for John St. and the West Don Lands, among any others that may come up, are not revised to include real sidewalks with real curbs, then two things will happen.
I will immediately file a human-rights complaint against all parties. When David Lepofsky did the same thing to the TTC over its refusal to announce bus, streetcar, and subway stops, TTC spent $450,000 fighting a case it knew it would lose. I expect the same thing to happen here. So should you.
If, even though a human-rights complaint had already been filed, the city attempted to actually implement a shared street, my friends and I will ask the courts to freeze the entire project until we get our way. We will, in effect, pull a St. Clair on your John St. You thought the St. Clair project got delayed and mired in litigation? That was over lost business, parking, and what the street looked like. This one’s about actual human lives.
If you’re thinking “You and what army?” rest assured I can assemble one in no time at all. And for a human-rights complaint, I don’t need one.
Why are you supporting shared streets?
If you support the idea of shared streets, why do you still do so? You now know shared streets are lethally dangerous to blind people and will probably result in frightening traffic chaos and all sorts of pedestrian/cyclist/motorist collisions. It is your duty to at the very least oppose anything resembling a curbless sidewalk. If you disagree with that, you are in effect endorsing outright discrimination against the blind and, in the worst case, killing them off one by one. I assure you that is not hyperbole.
Where are the Spacers in all this?
Pushing woonerfs on a group that is lethally threatened by them stinks to high heaven as an attempt to curry favour with Matthew Blackett (“I’m a huge fan of the naked-streets concept”), Spacing magazine, and their ilk. Shared streets are exactly the sort of thing the Spacers would endorse and actually have.
Why aren’t Spacers, who fancy themselves the most progressive thinkers in the civic realm, actively opposing shared streets as the threat to blind people they actually are? Doesn’t the silence of Matt Blackett, Spacing, and Spacers in general signal a complete ethical bankruptcy, a willingness to endorse faddish European streetscapes over the actual lived needs of their own neighbours?
Essentially, are Spacers so committed to defending the indefensible they won’t even support the inclusion of a raised curb?