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Brakes On

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August 29, 2011

Brakes On

Speed limits in Vancouver's Downtown East Side hailed as victory by residents

by Erin Innes

Main Street at Hastings Street, heart of Vancouver's Downtown East Side. Photo: Dawn Paley

VANCOUVER—People in Vancouver's Downtown East Side will step a little more lightly this fall, as the speed limit on East Hastings Street drops to 30 kilometres an hour, and more pedestrian controlled crossings are introduced into the bustling neighborhood.

Passed on July 26, the measures are part of a set of demands made by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) to make the Downtown East Side safer for the community.

The Downtown East Side has been identified as the most dangerous place in Vancouver for pedestrians, according to University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University researchers. More than a quarter of the city's identified “hot spots” for pedestrian injuries—locations where more than five people were hit by cars over a five year time period—are in the 10 block stretch of Hastings street where the changes will be implemented.

VANDU's recommendations represent the findings of the We Are All Pedestrians report, a community-based research and advocacy project undertaken by VANDU. Focusing on data collection, education, and community outreach, the project hired people from the Downtown East Side to research both driver and pedestrian volumes and behaviors, including a pedestrian survey and observation of the effects of street and sidewalk design.

“It snowed and it rained, but we stayed out there for hours,” said researcher Lorna Bird, an organizer with VANDU and the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society. “What we saw was that the police were handing out tickets for jaywalking in the Downtown East Side, but not on Davie and Robson.” Only 15 per cent of people in the Downtown East Side own vehicles, notes Bird. “People from other places are speeding through our neighborhood as a shortcut to get home,” she said.

The pedestrian safety project has set a precedent of cooperation between City Hall and the city's most marginalized community. “It was a really successful collaboration,” said VANDU organizer Aiyanas Ormond. The initiative emerged out of a "much less collaborative" process, however, surrounding what VANDU calls a “ticketing blitz” initiated by the Vancouver Police Department in 2008.

Under the guise of improving public safety, officers handed out over 1,100 tickets in the Downtown East Side for infractions like jaywalking, public urination and unlicensed vending.

“We challenged them on a number of occasions to prove that handing out jaywalking tickets improves public safety, and unsurprisingly they couldn't produce any evidence to support that,” said Ormond. VANDU members attended police board meetings, and even stormed a council meeting to demand that the city take a more proactive approach to public safety in the Downtown East Side. “Over 50 people stood up and said 'This is a crisis in our community,'" said Ormond. "People were afraid and felt targeted, being handed these tickets that they would never be able to pay.”

With funding to hire community members as grassroots researchers, the We Are All Pedestrians research took place in 2009 and 2010. While the report was well received by council, it took some pushing on the part of VANDU to get the changes that were won on July 26.

In the spring of 2011, VANDU sent a letter to Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson asking why no action had yet been taken on the report, even though the city had sent representatives of the City of Vancouver and VANDU to the International Urban Health Conference in New York to present the research. “Eventually, [city councilor] Kerry Jang came down to our Tuesday [VANDU Action Group] meeting with some city staff, and offered to implement the 30km per hr zone,” Ormond told The Dominion.

While the pedestrian safety measures approved by council are a step in the right direction, organizers at VANDU are still pushing for action on other parts of the community's demands that came out of the ticketing blitz in 2008.

The need for more public toilets in the neighborhood has been identified as an urgent concern, as many of the tickets that were handed out in the blitz were for public urination and defecation.

Following the success of the We Are All Pedestrians project, the city asked VANDU to do research on the public toilets issue. “This was really frustrating,” says Ormond. “[VANDU's research] basically just confirmed a decade of research that's already been done saying the same thing: we need more accessible public toilets in the Downtown East Side.”

Although hours for two existing public toilets in the neighbourhood have been extended for a trial period, the research project is currently stalled as VANDU and other participants have not been able to come to consensus about how to move forward.

Even though there is much more that needs to be done, the victory for pedestrian safety in late July sets a good precedent of the Downtown East Side community gaining ground on fighting for their rights at city hall. “We don't have a sense that the campaign is complete, but we're happy with the concrete improvements so far,” said Ormond.

Erin Innes is a freelance writer and Permaculture activist working for food and environmental justice in Vancouver/Coast Salish Territory.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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