OPINION: City Streets for People?

Public “rights of way” existed long before the automobile. It’s Heritage Week in Ontario and I have been looking at old photos of Guelph. Here’s one of many that intrigued me from days gone by.

C6-0-0-0-0-802_STGeorgesSquare

This, and many other photos, depict pedestrians, carts, horses, cyclists and streetcars sharing the streets.  No right angles, fluid and unencumbered.  Yes, I know that times have changed.  Our roads are paved, we drive cars, traffic volume and speeds have increased.  We manage traffic through lights, signals and intersections.    After all, roads are just for cars.  Or are they?

Councillor Allt recently posted a link to an interesting article about the History of Jaywalking.   Current regulations are the legacy of a very deliberate lobby effort by the automobile industry to turn our public spaces into car alleys.  Citizens fought this effort and mass protests tried to reclaim streets for people first, cars second.   The offence of jaywalking was designed to punish conscious acts of defiance.    Yes, Guelph Police still enforce on occasion.

Today, our conversations about active transportation (cycling and walking) focus on getting people off the roads.   Safety is the primary reason.  Let’s face it, any interaction between a car and pedestrian/cyclist usually ends badly for the latter, regardless of who is at fault.   Perhaps we need to shift the conversation back to why we built roads in the first place – for people to get from point A to point B.   City Council recently lowered speed limits around school zones, and there is further conversation to be had about lowering all speed limits on residential streets.   These actions recognize that multiple users must be considered in how we govern our roadways, that they are public spaces, for everyone.

Is it time for the City of Guelph to repeal our jaywalking by-law?  It would be a first step in a cultural shift towards walkable city building.   Perhaps a starting point would be to allow public all-access on all non-arterial roadways, including downtown side streets (Cork, Douglas, etc.).

I welcome the discussion.

Photo Credit: Guelph Public Library Archives (C6-0-0-0-0-802) St. George’s Square