Lorna Bird isn’t one for jaywalking. When she was a child, one of her friends was killed by a car in the streets of Winnipeg where she grew up. With that, the early life lesson of looking both ways before crossing the street was etched into her brain. But that hasn’t kept Bird from witnessing others meet the same fate as her friend.
Bird moved to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside—a neighbourhood that hosted 10 per cent of the city’s recorded pedestrian injuries—in the early 2000s.
“It was really terrible down here,” says Bird. “There just wasn’t any safe place for crossing.”
Jaywalking has often been cited as the central reason for the neighbourhood’s unusually high numbers of deaths and injuries. Bird has always thought this reasoning lays the blame in the wrong place: “If you’re a jaywalker, you’re not gonna be able to stop the car—the car is gonna make you fly.”
In 2009, Bird, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), joined the organization’s project to improve pedestrian safety in the Downtown Eastside. The project produced a suite of recommendations to the City that could make streets safer. Today, the area around the neighbourhood’s core intersection at Main and East Hastings streets has a lower, 30-kilometre-per-hour speed limit, as well as more and better crosswalks. But since the project’s conclusion, Bird has continued to see the danger play out in the worst way.
At Main and East Hastings in 2016, for example, Bird saw an elderly woman who was crossing the street get killed instantly by a left-turning semi-truck. At the same corner four months later, she witnessed two men get hit by a taxi, one of whom died from his injuries. Burned into her memory is the image of their shoes lying on the ground as the cab sent the men flying out of them. Today, like in 2009 and 2016, Main and East Hastings remains BC’s most dangerous intersection for pedestrians. The reasons go far beyond jaywalking.
Main and East Hastings is many things, but at its core is a dangerous contradiction.
On a typical day, below the blue scaffolding of the historic Carnegie Centre that presides over the intersection, a group of men might be huddled over a stash of $20 bills, shouting gleefully as they throw dice. Across Main, watches, toiletries, shoes, hats, and Lionel Messi jerseys might be displayed on blankets laid out on the sidewalk by vendors. Every day, people crowd the bus stops and canopy tents on each corner, hanging out, selling cigarettes, or waiting for any of the 19 bus routes that pass through.
It is a marketplace, a transit hub, and a community centre. It’s a corridor for drivers going downtown and a living room for many residents of the Downtown Eastside. Road safety advocate Chengyan Boon from the group Vision Zero Vancouver describes it as “a recipe for crashes.”
Between 2018 and 2022, ICBC recorded 55 pedestrians hit by drivers at this convergence of activity. That’s more than double the number of incidents at any other intersection in the province. Of those, 28 were deemed casualty crashes, meaning the victim was either injured or killed. ICBC sources this data from road user reports and police, so the actual numbers are likely higher given the history of underreporting by residents.
Nicolas Crier is one of those missing numbers. He was struck just outside the slow zone on East Hastings; he bounced off the car and rolled onto the pavement. Uninjured, he walked away.
“It didn’t really faze me,” he says. “It was just sort of like, ‘I’m still alive, yay.’” Crier knows well that not everyone is as lucky as him. On the block extending west from Main and East Hastings, he watched his friend get hit by the speeding driver of what he thinks was a stolen vehicle: “He got 20 feet in the air and ended up dying from his injuries.”
Worsening challenges are exacerbating the problem. According to census data, 10 blocks extending from Main and East Hastings saw a 17.5 per cent population increase between 2016 and 2021. The rest of the city grew by just 4.9 per cent in that same period. Numbers from the Homelessness Services Association of BC show that Vancouver’s homeless population has risen by 34 per cent since 2014, with the Downtown Eastside sitting squarely in the middle of that increase.
“There’s probably more people on the streets now—not just on the streets, but in the streets—than ever,” said Lani Russwurm, who has lived in the Downtown Eastside for 20 years and can see Main and Hastings from his window. “If they’re not homeless, they live in really tiny places, so a lot of their life goes on outside of the house, on the streets.”
Elderly pedestrians are the most likely age group to be run down by vehicles anywhere in the city, and the average age in the neighbourhood is about seven years older than the rest of Vancouver. The BC Coroners Service reported that between 2012 and 2021, 33 per cent of pedestrians killed in the province were over the age of 70, despite making up less than 20 per cent of the population.
In Vancouver’s 2014 plan for the Downtown Eastside, East Hastings was referred to as a “living room” for single-room-occupancy hotel residents. The rooms of the century-old hotels serve as little more than a bedroom and are often poorly maintained.
“If you want to avoid social isolation and not invite someone into your bedroom, you are pushed into public space,” says Aaron Bailey, a program coordinator at VANDU. “What we’ve effectively ended up with is a residential neighborhood with a very dense population of low-income people, many with physical disabilities—people that are forced to access the toxic drug supply, that are placed on an arterial roadway.”
For drug users, Bailey says, the dangers of being a pedestrian are rising as the drugs become more dangerous. “My entire tenure doing harm reduction work so far is with an extremely fucked up drug supply,” he says. The overdoses that Bailey has tended to have all involved benzodiazepines: a sedative contaminating Vancouver’s drugs that puts users at a high risk of blackouts and overdose.
“They’re not choosing to do that; it’s no fault of their own,” he says. “But with the way that the drugs are now, people are placed at risk of harm.”
In January 2023, the province decriminalized possession of small amounts of drugs, acknowledging substance use as a matter of public health. But responsibility for staying safe on roads is still often laid at the feet of vulnerable people.
Efforts to make Downtown Eastside streets safer began in 2009, when geographers from the University of British Colombia and Simon Fraser University acquired data showing more than one pedestrian was getting injured each day in Vancouver on average. After mapping where these injuries were happening, one finding stood out: a disproportionate number of the people getting hurt were in the Downtown Eastside.
These findings hardly shocked people living in the area, but did catch the attention of Vision Vancouver, the then-recently-elected civic political party. A group of unlikely allies—city workers, residents, police, activists, experts—were soon assembled to address the problem the academics had identified. Between December 2009 and April 2010, 167 volunteers from the community surveyed pedestrians, handed out pamphlets, held workshops, and affixed poles with posters that read, “Cars are no match for Superman. You’re not superman, please be careful crossing the streets.”
“They were standing high and walking proud,” says Hugh Lampkin, who served as VANDU’s representative on the project’s advisory committee. “It was good to see them doing something that they had never done before, which was a campaign that wasn’t all about drug users. It was for everybody—the whole community.”
Volunteers also surveyed over 1,400 Downtown Eastside pedestrians, asking about their perceptions of and experiences with road safety in the neighbourhood. Shockingly, nearly a third—32 per cent—had been hit by a vehicle. In workshops, participants explained that injuries often went unreported, for reasons that included being paid off by drivers, not fully realizing the extent of their injuries, and a reluctance to go to the police or a hospital because they had drugs in their possession or had bad past experiences.
These findings startled Lani Russwurm, who co-authored the project’s final report.
“If you’re familiar with East Hastings, there’s a lot of jaywalking across the street. People will do it whether there are cars coming or not,” he says. What he didn’t realize was the toll pedestrian injury was taking on his neighbours: “It was shocking, the stories people had to tell. So many people knew other people who had been hit, seriously maimed, or killed by traffic.”
So, project volunteers, including Lampkin and Bird, set out to see if jaywalking really was the source of the problem—a perception that in the past had led to controversial police ticketing blitzes against rule-breaking pedestrians. Armed with clickers, the volunteers counted every well and poorly behaved stroller and roller at busy intersections throughout the rest of Vancouver, then did the same in their neighbourhood.
“We did all this early in the morning, even though it was pouring rain, or it was snowing,” recalls Bird. “It was terrible, we were just freezing. We still did it just to get all the proper data.”
Their efforts showed that people were jaywalking more often at four of the five locations studied outside of the Downtown Eastside than on East Hastings. In the project’s final report, “We’re All Pedestrians”, Russwurm and co-author Don Buchanan note that jaywalking alone couldn’t explain the high number of injuries. Rather, they were likely the result of “the interplay between vehicle speed and a very high ratio of vulnerable pedestrians, many with compromised judgment.”
“We needed to see behavioral change,” says Buchanan, now a planner for the City of Surrey. “And the feeling was that driver behavior was what needed to change to make the community safer.”
The Vancouver Police Department suggested lowering the speed limit to 30 kilometres an hour on East Hastings. Except for TransLink, which argued that a lower speed limit would interfere with the movement of public transit, all parties—from city engineers to local advocates—were on board with the idea. The lower speed would give drivers more time to react to erratic pedestrians and, if they were hit, the chance of injury or death would be much lower.
In the spring of 2011, a year after the project’s completion, Vancouver City Council voted in favour of the reduced speed limit on a seven-block stretch of East Hastings. Other changes slowly followed. In 2013, they installed signage and stencilling indicating the speed limit change. They added crosswalk countdowns and a much-needed mid-block crossing with traffic lights on East Hastings west of Main; increased crossing times; and installed boards that displayed drivers’ speeds back to them.
But other recommendations were ignored, including adding street furniture and trees to create separation between pedestrians and vehicles, and cue drivers to slow down; putting zebra stripes at each crossing to increase visibility; and undertaking a long-term redesign of East Hastings akin to other popular areas accommodating high volumes of transit and foot traffic, such as Granville Mall. Some were discussed, but none came to light.
“The City considered other measures such as signal timing changes or midblock crossings but didn’t pursue those due to a very likely lack of compliance from pedestrians given the other social issues in the area,” Vancouver’s Traffic and Data Management office says in an email. They noted that lowering the speed limit had reduced injuries, a statement supported by ICBC data, which shows a 20 per cent decrease when comparing 2018 to 2022 with the preceding five years. Still, the stubborn fact remains that Main and East Hastings is Vancouver’s most dangerous area for foot traffic—one where being perfectly compliant can still get you killed.
Walking into Carnegie Centre, I encounter a security guard who’s greeting everyone coming in and out of the building with a kindness that does not match the stereotype of his uniform. When he asks what I’m there for, I tell him I’m a journalist covering pedestrian safety in the area. His eyes grow wide. Someone had been killed down the street just a few hours earlier.
The security guard points toward Colombia, one block west of Main. As I walk down the crowded sidewalk, I hear murmurs of what happened. People say a driver had a heart attack; she swerved into Vancity Corner Store at Colombia and Hastings, where a man, sitting outside, was struck and killed. According to the police report, two vehicles collided, sending a grey Subaru over the curb and into the man sitting outside the store.
As cars speed past the block-wide discussion of the morning’s crash, I speak to Downtown Eastside resident Ron Hunter. He tells me he thinks a reduced speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour could make the road safer. When I tell him that is in fact the speed limit already and has been for some time, he’s surprised. “I could tell right now there are cars doing more than 30,” he says.
Drivers speed on East Hastings often. According to data from Vancouver’s Traffic and Data Management office, 75 per cent of drivers on East Hastings broke the limit of 30 kilometres an hour in 2022. In 2011, nearly all—98 per cent—drove above 30, despite the speed limit change halfway through the year.
“That's a really unimpressive reduction,” says health sciences professor Meghan Winters, who researches health and city design at SFU. “That’s an indicator that there’s a lot more that needs to be done here.” For Winters, everyone moving through cities makes mistakes, but they don’t have to end with death or injury: “It’s about building safe systems into place, because there will always be human error.” Key to a safe system, according to Winters, is speeding enforcement.
Speeding enforcement is one of the many tools in the VPD’s arsenal to keep road users safe, according to Sergeant Steve Addison, media liaison for the VPD.
“Our enforcement has to be equitable to all road users. If there’s an expectation that we’re going to target people who are speeding in the area, there’s also an expectation that we’re going to be stopping, detaining, and potentially ticketing people who are engaging in unsafe behaviors,” Addison says. “The majority of the most serious cases that we investigate are the result of, sadly, pedestrians who are not obeying the rules of the road and are being struck by vehicles.”
Between 2008 and 2012, 76 per cent of jaywalking tickets the VPD handed out were written in the Downtown Eastside. The deterrence campaign met significant pushback from the community, and police now use the tactic with “an extreme amount of discretion,” according to Addison. He says it doesn’t tend to work in the area. Instead, officers opt to educate people they see travelling unsafely.
Yet the speed of a vehicle is often the determining factor in whether a hit pedestrian will survive. In the safety project report, Russwurm and Buchanan cite staggering statistics: at 64 kilometres per hour, 85 per cent of pedestrians will be killed; at 48 kilometres per hour, 45 per cent of pedestrians will be killed; at 32, five per cent of pedestrians will be killed. In short: speed matters.
One recent change might be slowing down drivers in the Downtown Eastside. A red-light camera at Main and Hastings was upgraded to ticket speeders in 2020 and fined 1,311 drivers last year. Studies from as recently as October 2023 have shown that these cameras can reduce speeding. Whether that is the case along East Hastings is to be determined, but the increased enforcement shows promise.
What is clear is that no measure has yet been enough to make the Downtown Eastside the haven of pedestrian safety it was hoped to become after the Safety Project. A six-lane road continues to move roughly 16,000 vehicles each day through a densely-packed pedestrian neighbourhood of uniquely vulnerable people. It is an inherent contradiction—one that perhaps reveals where our priorities lie.
In the 2009 study that first brought the Downtown Eastside’s safety problem to mainstream attention, the authors suggested physical changes at Main and East Hastings that were proven to promote safety. Protruding sidewalk corners, called pedestrian bulges, would shorten the crossing distance. An island in the middle of the intersection would narrow the roadway and ease crossing. The authors were geographers, not engineers, but they understood who the roads were designed for. They wrote that such changes “may result in reduced vehicle flow on this thoroughfare; however, the potential to increase pedestrian safety at this high-incident location should be paramount.”
Redesigning East Hastings is ambitious. The street is part of the province’s major road network, and any changes must be agreed upon by multiple authorities, chiefly TransLink. But emphasizing the complications—cost, bureaucracy, slower movement of vehicles—obfuscates the human cost for people in a neighbourhood of people who rely on their streets for services, for commerce, and for community.