WUSA advocacy brings pedestrian safety to UWaterloo 

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Sabrina Guillen
Communications Assistant
Tue, 11/19/2019 - 08:45

Convenience over safety 

It’s early in the morning. Too early. You have class at 8:30 AM and less time to get there than you wanted. Hurriedly you get dressed, collect your things and leave. Your way to class is made up of a series of busy streets and intersections. Sometimes you don’t have the time or patience to walk over to the crosswalk. Or maybe there just isn’t one close enough to be convenient. So, you jaywalk. We’ve all done it. But maybe today, in your hurried rush to avoid being late, you don’t look carefully enough before crossing. 

This is a situation that many students have found themselves in. Luckily, in places like around Ring Road, pedestrian crossings with extra stop signs have been installed to facilitate student foot traffic. The same, though, cannot always be said for the surrounding streets of Waterloo.  More and more students are becoming accustomed to unsafe jaywalking because of the lack of proper traffic infrastructure. And this issue hasn’t gone unnoticed. 

Lester/University 

One such location is where Lester Street meets University Avenue, just west of campus, an area heavily populated by student housing. The nearest crossing is 200 metres away. In each direction. For some, jaywalking is the more convenient solution, even though they are aware and concerned about the safety hazards. In addition, the streets or sidewalks near these intersections are often subject to closures due to frequent construction. For example, a few days after the above incident, the south sidewalk of University Avenue, between Lester and Philip, was closed for the construction of an adjacent building. This gave students only a few options: go west from Lester via jaywalking, walk along an active traffic lane, or backtrack 200 metres to a safe crosswalk.  

In January 2019, a University of Waterloo student unfortunately died after being struck by a car while jaywalking at the nearby intersection of University Avenue and Sunview Street; a decision most likely made because of a lack of crosswalk. This loss rocked students and signaled a need for change. 

With ever increasing risks near University and Lester students were strongly pushing for the City of Waterloo to install a crosswalk. The student concern for the issue was so great that following the death, a petition [external link] was started that gained over 500 signatures. This was by no means, though, a new issue. When the city examined the issue around installing a traffic signal several years ago, they had concluded that it wasn't warranted. 

One example of reasoning behind this was provided in a Reddit AMA [external link] in November 2018 by Jeff Henry, who was running for re-election as Waterloo Ward 6 Councillor. Henry stated that the Region’s previous focus was on moving a high volume of cars, therefore placing a traffic signal at University/Lester did not fit into their vision. The Region had also identified that intersection within the top 40 locations for vehicle collisions in 2017, which can be found in the November 6, 2018 Agenda [external link]. This demonstrates that the area was previously both high traffic and high risk. 

WUSA steps in 

After seeing inquiries and requests for change of several students having no effect, Students’ Council decided to step in. Beyond submitting inquiries themselves, as well as through the Councillors Jason Small, Deon Hua, Yu Chen Hou, and Bilal Ahktar, Students’ Council took the lead. They helped push the Region toward improvements to pedestrian and bike safety along University, the traffic signal at the Lester intersection being just one example. Some students and Councillors took it even further by partnering with Vision Zero (creating the new entity of Vision Zero Waterloo) to conduct a review of the collision/police report data. This would help provide quantitative evidence that traffic signal crossings should be installed at both the University/Lester and University/Sunview intersections. The following individuals were involved in the Vision Zero project: Student Eddy Ionescu, Councillor Yu Chen Hou, Councillor Deon Hua, Councillor Bilal Akhtar. To learn more about the methodology behind collecting the data, you can read the project’s article, “Fixing University Avenue” [external link].

It felt like an uphill battle. However, finally, after years of pushback on the dedicated pressure from students and advocates, the Regional Council approved the installation of a traffic light at University and Lester on August 22, 2019. The future safety of students is now front and centre. In further attempts to make traffic safer for those in Waterloo Region, the Regional Council also approved a tender to install separated bike lanes. For more information on the plan for the bike lanes and traffic light installation, you can read the Regional Council’s August 22 Council Agenda [external link], with the attached report on page 16. You can also view the August 22 council meeting on the Region of Waterloo Council's YouTube channel [external link].

The traffic signal and the bike lanes were planned to be under construction by October 16, and the University/Lester traffic signal was officially opened today, November 19!

A win for all 

We are tremendously happy for such a positive decision, especially after years of inquiries where the Region specifically stated they wouldn’t put in traffic signals. This is the type of advocacy that Students’ Council and WUSA are proud to support. It was not only important that we were making sure that students’ voices were heard but also to bring closure to the families of the deceased. No student should feel unsafe in their community. This is the win we needed to help ensure that.  

We know that we’re far from completely solving hazards to pedestrians. Therefore, in the winter 2019 term, the Students’ Council directed the Education Advisory Committee, including the VP Education, to undertake a research review of transportation, pedestrian and bike safety, and public transit. This would create an advocacy policy for WUSA to highlight areas for improvement and set guidelines for working with the University, the City of Waterloo’s Integrated Planning & Public Works Department, and the Region of Waterloo’s Planning & Works Committee. We hope to continue to see improvements to traffic in Waterloo and encourage students to keep reaching out to us or the region with your concerns and suggestions. The process works and we hope that this recent decision helps prove that. 

If you're interested in learning more about how WUSA is helping students resolve conflicts, work with the local community, and represent your needs across all levels of government, you can visit our Advocacy & Representation page.