Who is responsible for bad street design?

Bureaucracies are wonderful machines for obfuscating responsibility. Even the simplest, most mundane task is endlessly parsed into hundreds of discrete tasks and assigned to a variety of people … staff, consultants, and “public opinion” and politicians.

When something goes wrong, like when a street or road is conspicuously dangerous (probably to pedestrians, or cyclists, or transit users, as they are to whom the risk is transferred to make the road safer for motorists) or ill designed, there is no one standing around to blame. Bureaucrat A merely listened to complaints. Bureaucrat B said something had to be done. Bureaucrat C did the five year plan. And D put it into the budget forecast. And politicians approved the budget. And they just listened to the accredited experts. So Bureaucrat F is just carrying out the work he was assigned, and hired a consultant , who of course is not responsible for the bad instructions because he is just following orders and building it to (California freeway) standards. And so on.

This wasn’t acceptable in Nuremberg days for soldiers of the Reich. Just following orders is as credible an excuse as just being a cog in the bureaucratic machinery.

And finally the courts are starting to agree. Note the following from Strong Towns:

Cities in the recent past have considered themselves immune to lawsuits of the type I am suggesting you are soon likely to find yourself facing. There has been a sense that industry standards, however despotic they are to those outside of an automobile, would provide protection from liability. This is proving to be an erroneous belief.

The city of Los Angeles recently agreed to pay $9.5 million dollars in a wrongful death lawsuit …. With a swimming beach on one side and parking on the other, the fast speeds and highway-scaled lanes of a Los Angeles street suggests a willful disregard for the plight of the people the city knew were routinely crossing it.

A plaintiff in a lawsuit against New York City was recently awarded $20 million when the city was held liable for failing to redesign streets with a history of traffic injuries and reckless driving. The city was found negligent in their design. In the decision, Justice Eugene Fahey quoted language similar to what I would use to describe State Street:

Plaintiffs’ expert testified that it was known among traffic engineers that straight, wide roads with little interference from pedestrians and other vehicles, such as Gerritsen Avenue, encourage speeding because drivers feel more comfortable on roadways with those characteristics. He testified that traffic calming measures deter speeding because they cause drivers to be more cautious, and that such measures are known to reduce the overall speed on roadways.

While I don’t look forward to the litigation costs (our bad road designs will be defended to the farthest limit of your and my tax dollar), I do look forward to people increasingly suing municipalities over mid-block bus stops with no way to cross the street, overly wide and speedy road designs, excessive consumption of public space for one class of users, etc. And yeah, some of those lawsuits will be inspired by NIMBY, or be anti-transit, or anti-bike-path, but just like children  fall at the most awkward times the overall lesson in stability and movement is worthwhile in the end when your child leaves the house and you can be reasonably confident they will be safe.

Of course, the best defense for a city is offence. Launching a well-funded Vision Zero program would help.

Surely Ottawa is already pretty conscientious at installing safe infrastructure, you say?

Here is the city installing bus stops, on opposite sides of a busy and fast four + lane road (right in the centre of the photo). Note the apartment building, and townhouses beyond that, the collector street coming in from the bottom of the picture, and the presence of a church/cultural centre and a school. And where are the pedestrian crossings? At the farthest extremities of the picture to the left and right. Now maybe these folks only ever make one way bus trips and never have to cross the road. And the townhouse kids are all home schooled…

(double click or something to embiggen)

Or maybe the city isn’t designing safe and useful infrastructure. Mind, there is also a cemetery in this picture. Who will get to use it first?

2 thoughts on “Who is responsible for bad street design?

  1. Agree with your assessment of the A to F (and on) city staffers involved in street design. You just have to attend one of those special local meetings where detail design is reviewed, to be overwhelmed by the number of staff (from at least 4 departments – silos? ) – attending. It is not ideal and I wonder what the recipe for correcting this situation might be. If we can define it we can go to city management and council and suggest real organizational change.

  2. For the benefit of WSA’s readers, the aerial shot is of a section of Baseline Road, between the western leg of Centrepointe Drive and Greenbank Road. A few years ago, a woman ran across Baseline Road on a dark, rainy morning, trying to get to the bus before it left the stop. She slipped, fell, and died under the wheels of the OC Transpo bus. A tragic outcome directly attributable to the design flaws described in the article.

    According to College Ward Councillor Chiarelli, this part of Baseline Road does not have enough warrant points to merit a cross over (beg button induced notwithstanding). This is a low cost solution that could be put in place in short order (install some aluminum posts, hookup the yellow lights to the power that already goes down that section of road, paint some lines on the asphalt) to increase the safety of its residents, the same residents that the city actively encourages to take public transit. This is but another example of the city abdicating responsibility while retaining authority, which is a standard feature of policy.

    Perhaps the city needs to re-evaluate its priorities. Perhaps the city needs to re-evaluate its warrants scale. Perhaps the city needs to start to accept responsibility for its decisions. Perhaps … I am asking too much of city staff and city council.

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