Why Oslo has fewer pedestrian deaths than Halifax

Two capital cities with similar climates had very different years when it came to pedestrian safety in 2019.

Oslo, Norway, had zero pedestrian deaths in 2019, while Halifax had four in the first 11 months of the year, despite having a population of 431,000 — roughly a quarter-million fewer than Oslo's population of 673,000.

Any number of pedestrians killed is too many, said pedestrian safety advocate Martyn Williams.

"It's really terrifying being a pedestrian in Halifax," said Williams, the creator of the Facebook group HRM Safe Streets for Everyone. "It's very, very dangerous."

Since 2015, 13 pedestrians have been killed in Halifax, while eight were killed in Oslo, according to Statistics Norway.

Robert Short/CBC

Williams, who is originally from England, said Halifax has a lot to learn about its approach to pedestrian safety.

"You can't really mix high-speed traffic and pedestrians in urban areas," he said. 

"Instead of trying to combine the two, it's very much an effort throughout Europe to separate traffic and pedestrians … and I believe that's what Oslo has done very successfully."

How Oslo did it

Christoffer Solstad Steen, who works with Trygg Trafikk, Norway's road safety council, said the city of Oslo has taken big steps in recent decades to achieve zero pedestrian deaths in 2019.

He said some streets in Oslo are closed off to cars, so only pedestrians and cyclists can use them.

"When you reduce the number of cars that are driving in the city centre, you reduce the risk of collisions between cars, and other heavy vehicles, with pedestrians and bikers," said Steen in a phone interview from Oslo.

Emma Davie/CBC

He said Oslo has been focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and becoming more environmentally conscious.

As part of this goal, he said the city is encouraging more people to cycle by removing parking spots and restricting vehicle access in parts of the city centre.

In areas where bicycles and cars share the road, the bike lanes are painted red so it's clear where cyclists should go.

"And those lanes that are painted red are often ... where there previously were parked cars," Steen explained.

While fewer people cycle in the winter, he said cycling is still common, even on snowy days. He said cyclists just need to ensure they have proper equipment like studded tires and warm clothing to safely travel over ice and snow.

Morten Brakestad/Trygg Trafikk

While reducing the number of cars on the road has helped reduce collisions between vehicles and pedestrians and cyclists, it's introduced a new problem: an increase in pedestrians being hit by bicycles.

This isn't as serious as a pedestrian being hit by a vehicle, Steen said.

"But still, we have a lot of unfortunate incidents between bikers and pedestrians, so we have to still do a lot to reduce those injuries as well," he said.

Slower-moving streets

Lower speed limits are also a factor in pedestrian and cyclist safety. Steen said it's common to see speed limits in Oslo's city centre as low as 30 to 40 km/h.

"If you get hit by a car [at a speed] more than 40 [km/h], it reduces the possibility to survive a lot," he said. 

"And of course, you give the drivers a lot more time to adapt or be aware of potential danger."

In Nova Scotia, the lowest maximum speed on any residential street is 50 km/h, but municipalities can apply to reduce it to 40 km/h. Schools can also have a 30 km/h zone along a section of road leading to and from the school.

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Steen also said Norway's focus on road safety education at a young age and a minimum driving age of 18 have led to a "huge reduction" in accidents involving young drivers, which has carried into their adult years.

Halifax hasn't 'quite got the recipe right'

Williams said some of these changes can be done in Halifax, but the city needs to better prioritize separating vehicles from vulnerable road users and slowing down the flow of traffic.

It could be as simple as reducing some roads from four lanes to two, he said, and reallocating that space to active transportation like bike lanes or bus lanes, or widening sidewalks.

"There's lots of ways that you can change the dynamic of streets to make them feel safer for pedestrians and cyclists without the spending of megabucks," said Williams.

While Halifax has taken steps to redesign some busy streets, such as creating a screetscape on Argyle Street, implementing a bus corridor on Gottingen Street and making plans to give a facelift to Spring Garden Road, this patchwork of changes isn't enough to solve the big-picture problems, said Williams.

"I don't think we're being anywhere near adventurous enough, and I think we need ... an HRM-wide strategy to rethink our approach to streets and street priorities," he said.

"I think that we haven't really quite got the recipe right."

Williams also noted that a high proportion of pedestrians get hit in crosswalks in Halifax — accounting for more than 60 per cent of pedestrian-vehicle collisions between January and May 2019 — and said the city needs to hire a specialist firm of engineers to assess the city's crosswalks.

CBC

In an email, Halifax spokesperson Brynn Budden said staff can't provide opinions on pedestrian safety initiatives in other jurisdictions because they take direction from city council.

She said staff are preparing a pedestrian safety presentation for the transportation standing committee for later this month.

Canadians twice as likely to die in traffic

It's not just pedestrians who are safer on Norway's roads.

A total of 110 people were killed in traffic in Norway last year, 14 of which were pedestrians. For the first time, the country's road administration said no children under the age of 16 died in traffic in 2019.

In Canada, 1,922 people — including 332 pedestrians — were killed in 2018. Fifty-five children age 14 and under were killed in traffic as well.

While Oslo is bigger than Halifax, there's a big size disparity between Norway and Canada. Canada has a population of about 37.6 million, while Norway's is only about 5.3 million.

Even taking the population difference into account, Canadians are still about twice as likely to die in traffic than Norwegians.

Robert Short/CBC

Steen said Norway has come a long way. In 1970, Norway lost more than 550 people to traffic deaths, but has since become a country other places look to for improving their own traffic infrastructure.

He said other places can follow Norway's lead in reducing traffic deaths, but there needs to be collaboration between different government agencies and other organizations to make it happen.

"I think the key is just working together ... It's not acceptable to die because people need to get to a place as fast as possible. That's not fair," said Steen.

"You should be able to drive or bike safely without worrying about it."

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