Vancouver's Downtown Eastside home to some of B.C.'s most dangerous intersections for pedestrians

·5 min read
The intersection of Main and East Hastings in Vancouver is the most dangerous crossing for pedestrians in B.C., according to data from ICBC. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
The intersection of Main and East Hastings in Vancouver is the most dangerous crossing for pedestrians in B.C., according to data from ICBC. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

Myles Harps has lost multiple friends who were hit by vehicles on the Downtown Eastside (DTES). One friend was struck by a bus and lost his leg.

"I've almost been hit down here ... and a guy pulled me back and it was just somebody who didn't see me," said Harps.

The Vancouver neighbourhood hosts some of the most dangerous intersections in B.C. for pedestrians, according to the latest data tracking vehicle-pedestrian collisions from ICBC .

At the top of the list sits the intersection of East Hastings and Main Street. where between 2016 and 2020, there were 26 collisions between pedestrians and vehicles.

While there have been improvements over the past decade, residents and advocates say more needs to be done to keep community members from dying.

Why is the DTES so dangerous for pedestrians?

The Downtown Eastside is a historic and vibrant residential and commercial neighbourhood of more than 20,000 people.

It's also a densely packed area that serves as a vital arterial into downtown Vancouver, where the streets are shared by commuting and commercial drivers, as well as as sometimes unpredictable pedestrians from a community battling high rates of mental illness and addiction.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Aaron Bailey, a program co-ordinator with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), says busy sidewalks next to busy roads are a recipe for disaster.

"This is a densely populated residential neighbourhood that doesn't have the amenities or the walkability or the general accessibility of other residential neighbourhoods," said Bailey.

Bailey says the city has failed to provide staples like parks, gathering spaces and even sidewalk benches, some of which he claims have been removed from the DTES over the past few years.

"That is due to gentrifying forces in the neighbourhood not wanting DTES residents, particularly people who use alcohol and who use drugs, to be in the public space and to make use of it. And we think that is fundamentally unjust."

Without public spaces, he says the DTES community has nowhere else to go.

"People are sort of forced to gather on sidewalks directly next to a major arterial roadway ... and when they are forced to gather in that way, they're always going to be placed at risk by passing traffic."

Speed along the main arterial

More than a decade ago, speed limits along a stretch of the DTES were reduced to 30 km/h, following a study prepared for the City of Vancouver.

But both Harps and Bailey say they rarely see people driving at or below the limit.

He would like to see stronger enforcement, potentially with intersection safety cameras.

It's an idea supported by Sandy James, a city planner and the founder of Walk Metro Vancouver. She says speed cameras are an effective and proven tool for speed limit compliance, especially when drivers are stuck with a big enough ticket.

"If you are hit by a vehicle at 30 km/h, you have an 85 per cent chance of survival, if you're hit by a vehicle at 50 km/h, your chance of survival is 15 per cent," said James.

"So even just slowing the traffic down and being really aware as a driver that you are going through a space that's being used by people is very important."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Winston Chou, manager of traffic and data management with the City of Vancouver, says speeds have decreased within the area thanks to the lowered limits, but not to the level they would like to see.

"Unfortunately, we haven't seen a significant reduction in collisions, but when we look at the details of the collisions, the severity of the collisions has done down," said Chou, meaning the injuries aren't always as severe.

Recently, he says the camera at East Hastings and Main Street was upgraded to enforce the speed limit, but residents and advocates would like to see more traffic cameras added at intersections in the area.

Jaywalking

The Vancouver Police Department says the most recent pedestrian collisions in the DTES have been the result of pedestrian error, such as jaywalking, rather than speed.

"Road safety is a shared responsibility. Everyone has a role to play, regardless of whether they are driving, walking, riding a bike or using some other form of transportation," said Sgt. Steve Addison in a statement.

Harps admits he does see people crossing erratically but added it's not simply a matter of breaking the rules.

"Some of my brothers and sisters on the Eastside have mental disabilities and things like that. Some of them don't watch very good. Some people aren't mentally there," he said.

Harps says school zones were created so drivers would be more aware of their unpredictable surroundings, and argued drivers in the Downtown Eastside should take the same approach and James agrees.

"In the 20th century, cars were king. But the reality is the 21st century is a bit different and people want to use the streets differently," she said.

Bailey says the situation is far more nuanced than residents of the DTES not jaywalking.

"People are very keen to pin the problems of the DTES on the residents when the matter is far more complex. The DTES and the dangers and harms people face here are the result of almost 100 years of complex political and planning history," he said.

The City of Vancouver says it is constantly looking at ways to make the DTES safer. Along with a decrease in the speed limit, the city has made several improvements over the past decade including installing mid-block crossings, intersection signal timing and increased signage.

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