The City has been doing a lot under the new Master Transportation Plan to re-prioritize our transportation system. As New Westminster is increasingly a compact, mixed-use urban centre, our public spaces become more important to the comfort and safety of residents, to the attractiveness and accessibility of our businesses, and to the building of community. That means our public spaces have to be safe places for people; that safety cannot be compromised in the interest of “getting traffic flowing”. Freeways are for flowing traffic, streets are for people.
I’m proud of the work that the City’s Advisory Committee for Transit, Bicycles and Pedestrians (ACTBiPed) has done, and the collaborative attitude that City staff has adopted when discussion transportation issues, be they local traffic improvements or large regional projects like the Pattullo Bridge. However one piece of the political puzzle around transportation has been notably absent, not just in New Westminster, but regionally, and that is an independent advocacy organization to support the rights of pedestrians, and assure their voice is heard.
We have had various regional “straphangers” organizations over the years, and greater Vancouver has not one, but two separate cycling advocacy groups: The BC Cycling Coalition and HUB. The cycling groups have demonstrated that adding political voices together multiplies the volume, but also shows that advocacy can be constructive and collaborative. Their hard work over the last decades has resulted in millions of dollars in work making cycling a safer and easier alternative to driving in our region, and their work goes on.
There hasn’t been any such organization regionally working on protecting pedestrian space, or helping governments make better decisions regarding pedestrian rights. Perhaps this is because pedestrians are not seen as an under-represented minority. When you think about it, we are all pedestrians. Even if the only walking you do is to get from your car to a parking space, you need outcross a sidewalk to get there, and want that space to be safe (To expand out to truly everyone – the definition of “pedestrian” in modern transportation planning includes those who need mobility aids like walkers of chairs to help them get around). But politically, pedestrians are almost silent.
When the Ministry of Transportation, TransLink, or a Local Government design a new bridge or overpass, they seek input from the BC Trucking Association and the Gateway Council, organizations like BCAA and HUB use their political influence and the voices of their membership to assure that the interests of their member groups are added to the discussion. But pedestrians, for some reason, are absent. Because of this, sidewalks, crosswalks, and other aspects of the pedestrian realm are too often tacked on afterward, not integrated into the primary design thinking. The first thought is “how do we move cars”, then followed by “ok, let’s fit in some sidewalks”. Imagine how we would design our transportation system differently if we started with “how will a pedestrian use this space”, then decide what spaces we can allow for cars? Shouldn’t that be the default mode in a dense urban area like New West? Where is the organization to advocate for this shift?
The good news is that some local people are starting just this type of organization. They are calling themselves New Westminster Walker’s Caucus. They are a small group started by a few people familiar to the ACTBiPed as strong advocates for pedestrian rights, and for walking as a transportation mode. They have had a couple of meetings, and would love a little support from other walkers in New West and the region – show up at a meeting, lend them your skills, share the conversation.
We are all pedestrians, it’s time we stopped being so damn quiet about it.