— Feature —

Deadly Crosswalks and Other Things the Postwoman Knows

Jasper Avenue is Edmonton’s oldest and most important street. But is ‘the finest thoroughfare of the Golden West’ also the most dangerous?


Janet Heikel, Canada Post worker for 28 years.

You come to know a place very well once you’ve walked its every road, five days a week, for the last four years.

For instance, Janet Heikel, the postwoman in charge of a small but densely populated Oliver route, knows the next buildings to be supplanted by towers. She also knows which property’s residents are miffed that said towers will shade their pool. She knows which notable people go to which hair salon and she’s pretty sure she knows who’s addicted to online shopping. She knows the owner of the new izakaya is related to the owner of the new dental lab, and thanks to them, she now knows the best sushi and best dentists city-wide. And she knows that four times a year a certain community newsmagazine will add several pounds and hours to her shift, which she’s not too happy about.

She also knows to begin every day on the north side of her route, where seniors apartments Ansgar Villa and Kiwanis Place are. “They have a certain time that the mail has to come,” said the Canada Post worker of 28 years during a walkabout in July. “And let me tell you, they know everything.” Not just seniors, but construction workers and secretaries alike have made Heikel an authority on these nine-square blocks, but she needn’t their expertise to know that two Jasper Avenue crosswalks along her route—119th and 120 streets—are unsafe.

In four years she’s seen the aftermath of two serious pedestrian accidents and has heard of countless more. “Police used to park here and tag people who don’t stop,” said Heikel, pointing to the 119 St. crosswalk controlled by little more than a sign and some white lines. “But after they’re gone it’s back to the same thing.”

That’s starting to change. Last June, transportation engineers caved under immense pressure from city council and the Oliver Community League, which has raised concerns for years, and deemed those crosswalks—plus two more along the west side of Jasper Ave.—worthy of some traffic lights. Some were installed in August, but lights alone won’t tame the seven-lane, 50-kilometre-an-hour road. That’s why Jasper Ave. is about to undergo a makeover along 109 St. to 124 St.

Public consultations begin this fall and everything is on the table—wider sidewalks, fewer lanes, bike paths, trees, street furniture. Beginning in 2018, it could be the most transformative construction projecton the west side of Edmonton’s main street in a generation, and set the tone for future road projects across the Capital.

But only if the public asks for it; otherwise, the future avenue will resemble the current one, with fresher pavement. The potential redesign was decided after a rather awkward public chiding of the Transportation branch from City Council last December. It was presented in the Capital Budget debates as an $8.8 million road reconstruction, because, unlike the Jasper Ave. redesign east of 109 St., the Oliver portion falls out of the downtown master plan. It’s now been refashioned the “Jasper Avenue Street-scape Concept” plan. What’s the difference?

Imagine you had to renovate your house. Imagine the foundation was so cracked and the floors so pocked and the grass so weeded that the whole thing just needed to be razed and rebuilt. Would you reconstruct it verbatim? Maybe, it if was the perfect house and it suited your needs for the next 40 years.

But west Jasper Ave. is far from perfect. Unlike its Downtown side, there are no trees and few benches, and in addition to risky crosswalks, the sidewalks are narrow and the lanes wider for fast traffic flow. There are other problems too: Businesses hollow the public realm with lifestyle posters and barred and blackened windows, while others abut the side-walks with their parking lots. But those are not your property. Those are your neighbours’. Maybe once they see your spectacular new house they’ll step up in the way that buildings along Whyte Avenue have since its 1980s transformation.

Maybe. Until then, it’s just you, your lot and $8.8 million. What are you going to build?

“During the rush hours of the afternoon, Jasper avenue, the finest and broadest thoroughfare of the whole of the golden west, is frequently so crowded that a heedless farmer or truckman coming down the wrong side of the street will throw the whole system traffic into confusion and frequently causes runaways. … Ye horsemen beware.” – Edmonton Bulletin, 1907

Jasper Avenue is not a house. It’s a main street. In fact, it was originally called Main Street. It crosses through Downtown and into Edmonton’s most populated neighbourhood, one currently undergoing redevelopment and demographic change unprecedented since the 1960s. While surrounding core neighbourhoods shrink, stagnate or see incremental growth, Oliver (as well as Downtown) is growing at the rate of new suburbs. And though 60 per cent of Edmontonians drive to work, the same percentage of Oliver residents don’t, meaning they interact with the sidewalks more as they walk (14 per cent) or bus (21 per cent) to work.

The second mention of Jasper Ave. existing in city archive files is, in fact, about its footpaths. (The first record is its renaming from “Main Street” on Feb. 18, 1882). “The need for sidewalks is greatly felt,” reads the 1883 municipal document urging landowners to invest in them. “There is nothing that gives more City-like appearance to a place than good sidewalks.” It then lays out the benefits: convenient mobility, enhanced property values and the chance to “show to parties that may come here this summer that we do not lack faith in the place ourselves and have some little enterprise in us.”

Deeper into the archives, one sees when road congestion becomes problematic. “During the rush hours of the afternoon,” reads a 1907 Edmonton Bulletin article, “Jasper avenue, the finest and broadest thoroughfare of the whole of the golden west, is frequently so crowded that a heedless farmer or truckman coming down the wrong side of the street will throw the whole system traffic into confusion and frequently causes runaways. … Ye horsemen beware.”

Whyte Ave. and Jasper’s seven-lane widths originated from the need for horsemen to freely turn their carriages, so it’s not until the postwar boom that Ye Carmen and Ye Carwomen must beware. In 1961, four of the ten most accident-prone intersections for cars dotted Jasper, between 100th to 109th street. It would take the city’s best traffic engineers to find solutions with tow-zones and underground parking, so people wouldn’t disrupt traffic by parking until they were beneath it.

Today, not a single Jasper or Whyte crossing makes the top 10 list of vehicle collisions. Not even the top 20.

But year after year, they dominate in pedestrian accidents, according to data acquired through a freedom of information and privacy request by #RebootWhyte, a grassroots campaign to improve Strathcona’s main street. The two worst Jasper Ave. intersections were 113 St. and 109 St., with 13 and 20 pedestrian and bike accidents each since 2005.

There are two ways to look at this: that it’s only natural places with the highest pedestrian volumes would see the most injuries, or that we’ve failed to adequately protect pedestrians in places where they’re most at risk.

Jasper Avenue in 1913, before the automobile revolution.

Jasper Avenue in 1913, before the automobile revolution.

It was a scorching July morning, so Janet Heikel didn’t mind if the sprinklers on Beth Shalom’s lawn spritzed her grey uniform. The flowers were in full bloom. Street-sweepers dabbed their perspiring foreheads. And construction workers hammered away at a nearly finished Jewish seniors residence on the corner of 119th and Jasper, where, 12 months ago to that day, an Earls employee crossing the road was, according to a witness, “tossed like a rag doll,” because a car didn’t stop for her. She was 19 and may never live independently again, yet she may not be alive today if she were one of the seniors living up the block or who’ll soon move into the residential tower.

According to city statistics, they’re five times more likely to die in pedestrian collisions. In 2015’s first four months, five of six pedestrian deaths were seniors. “You should see them standing on the corner with their walkers and canes,” said Heikel. “If they’re not aggressive—and they’re not—no one stops. You have to make a point of stepping out. …There’s been so many times I’ve just said, ‘Come with me, come with me.’”

And it’s not just the elderly she worries about. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind has an office nearby staffed with visually impaired people like Bruce, the custodian on a first-name basis with Heikel. “There’s an audible signal on that,” he said, pointing his broom down the road to 121 St. He turned to the uncontrolled intersection at 120 St. “So I guess you’re taking your chances on that one.” Is that enough for him to walk a block? “No. I’m, like, whatever.”

And therein lies the problem. People don’t like detours, especially if they’re on foot. A traffic engineer might stand on the corner with a clipboard and counter and conclude that traffic lights are unnecessary because there’s a controlled crosswalk 100 metres away. But a pedestrian is, like, whatever. And so he puts one foot in front of the other, assured that a crosswalk wouldn’t exist if it weren’t safe.

In defence of the traffic engineer, Jasper Ave. isn’t a pedestrian plaza. It’s always been and will remain a thoroughfare dutifully transferring the passengers of 30,000 cars, busses and motorcycles to their destinations daily. Whatever comes of the new streetscape, it will need to balance Jasper’s dual identities as main street and thoroughfare, but realizing that one of those identities has long outperformed the other is important to restoring the balance.

“If you’re coming in from an 80-kilometre road and you see these bloody seven-lanes here,” said historian Shirley Lowe, co-author of The Life of a Neighbourhood: A History of Edmonton’s Oliver District 1870–1950. “You think, ‘It’s a car street’—and it is.”

Lowe grew up here in the ’50s and ’60s, shortly after the “West End” was renamed Oliver, and just as the car craze transformed it into what it is today. “I was six years old when I would walk up to Jasper Avenue, get on the number five, go downtown to the school of dance, get off on 106th Street, have my dance lesson, cross Jasper Avenue, get on the bus and get home. By. My. Self.” Would she dare let a child cross it alone today? “No, because of the culture of the road. They’re not looking for pedestrians. I bet if you parked a kid on that corner [119 St.] hell would freeze over before a car would stop.”

For Gil Penalosa, founder of Toronto’s 8–80 Cities and Bogota, Colombia’s former parks commissioner, whether public spaces are safe for children and seniors is the very metric with which he consults municipalities. “If everything we did in our cities was great for an eight-year-old and great for an 80-year-old,” he explained, “then it would be great for everybody.”

It’s a fresh take on a city that saw eight per cent more pedestrian accidents last year, despite dramatic declines in car collisions overall. But it’s ever more urgent as baby boomers age into retirement. By 2031, a million Albertans will be 65 or older. Many will retire in central neighbourhoods to maintain their independence, to walk to the grocer, medi-clinic and bus stop. To keep social ties. “Their number one issue is isolation,” said Penalosa. “They’re terrified of the day they lose their drivers licence, not because they love their cars, but because they want mobility.”


Meanwhile, Millennials—the second largest generation and biggest cohort of the Canadian workforce—are pouring into downtowns and more often choosing not to drive. In 50 years, their children and grandchildren will contribute to Metro Edmonton’s 2.1 million population. What are these generations inheriting? “This isn’t something trivial,” he says. “Being able to walk and bike safely in Edmonton should be a human right.”

Looking at pictures of Jasper Ave., old and new, Penalosa said true walkability can never flourish for as long as there are seven lanes of traffic moving at 50-km an hour and pedestrians must push buttons to cross it. “That’s a clear symptom of their priorities.” But above all, he said, it will take “vision and guts.”

No doubt the 2009 transportation master plan, The Way We Move shows vision. But when it came time for city administrators to deliver on that vision the only guts in sight were those left on the floor last December after councillors tore Transportation a new one. That’s because the downtown bike corridor, complete streets (a policy to serve all road users safely) and active transportation (a policy for walking and cycling) were effectively defunded in the proposed Capital Budget that would direct Edmonton’s growth for the next four years.

“I’m concerned that we still haven’t figured out that people on their feet, on the street, and some-
times on bikes, is a sign of a great and healthy and interactive and integrated city,” an exasperated Mayor Don Iveson said to Transportation head Dorian Wandzura. “And I’m frustrated that after seven years … that still hasn’t gotten through.”

After a brief intermission to welcome George H. Luck School students eager to see city hall’s inner workings, councillors continued to grill Wandzura’s team for its disappointing Jasper Ave. improvement plan, as if they were the sixth graders present. “Can you explain to me how [this] fell off the table?” rebuked Ward 6 Coun. Scott McKeen. “Why we didn’t look at this as an opportunity to do a new urban design, why it’s just a like-for-like rehab—why’d that happen?” Coun. Henderson, who represents neighbourhoods along Whyte Ave., called it “nonsense” and “absolutely crazy.”

The tone was more positive in June as Transportation planners unveiled a new approach to crosswalks, taking pedestrians’ safety, rather than just the national traffic guidelines, into consideration. Ten Jasper, Whyte and 104th avenue intersections would soon have manual controls, at a cost of $100,000 each. However, upgrading the other 190 crosswalks identified as inadequate will take 20 years, while others that probably should have been on the list were disregarded. “I still feel that pedestrian safety is taking second place to concerns about traffic flow,” Coun. Henderson said via email.

A senior administrator who’s asked not to be identified said the message to promote walkability doesn’t resonate for the majority of their colleagues in Transportation. “There’s a lot of will in the planning area, but when we hit operations, people who actually run busses, ETS and LRT are very rigid about how they want things to work.”

The City employee worried that planners working on the Jasper Avenue Streetscape Concept will turn to the rules—guidelines on road width, for instance—and “over-engineer” it just as they did Scona Road.

The 2012 arterial road rehab resulted in ticked-off and ticketed drivers speeding in lanes clearly designed for efficiency, as well as residents of the Mill Creek neighbourhood appalled by its hostile design.

Scona Road is also known as 99 St. But in the Transportation department, it has another nickname: “The Beginning of the End.”

On the afternoon of another summer scorcher, Dorian Wandzura boarded the no. 7 bus, enthusiastically greeted the driver and flashed his ETS staff pass clipped to his slacks. He left the suit jacket at home and wore an “Edmonton Elections 2013” T-shirt, one of his first local keepsakes after arriving in the middle of the political race from the City of Regina. He spent his first months as the new Transportation GM listening more than leading, observing his staff’s prevailing outlook while allowing the refreshed council to find its own. Then he moved on his ambitious plan to align all 3,400 staff with the same four goals around accessible and sustainable transportation.

Employees describe the GM as a strategist. One of his favourite stories to tell happened at NASA happened before he was born, and it’s about John F. Kennedy. While touring the space centre in 1962, the President asked a janitor what he does there. Legend has it the janitor replied, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.”

“That’s the quintessential story of alignment,” explained Wandzura, as the bus climbed Scona Rd. “The janitor plays as equal a roll to getting a man on the moon as the eggheads in the lab. It’s really about making sure the experts understand their role in active transportation and creating vibrant spaces.”

“If I were to close my eyes and fast forward, I could easily see [Jasper Ave. as] a vibrant people-place—lots of activity, lots of vitality, where for 16 hours of the day it has life to it. Where pedestrians and vehicles share this lively place.” –Dorian Wandzura, City of Edmonton’s general manager of transportation

Then why were several of those tenants—not just on Jasper, but city-wide—ignored in the last budget proposal on his watch? “We dropped the ball,” he admitted; Transportation made an error in “not connecting” the street’s necessary renewals with Oliver’s growth. But, he said, funding a complete redo of Jasper in the budget could have displaced a firehall or the Milner’s makeover, hence the $8.8 million won’t be nearly enough to cover the entire 15-blocks and council will need to find money elsewhere in 2019. (As one senior planner put it: “It’s chump change.”)

But that hasn’t discouraged Wandzura. “If I were to close my eyes and fast forward,” he said, “I could easily see [Jasper Ave. as] a vibrant people-place—lots of activity, lots of vitality, where for 16 hours of the day it has life to it. Where pedestrians and vehicles share this lively place.”

He knows a new streetscape won’t achieve it alone, but it’s the first step. To get there, the city—administrators, politicians and residents alike—must view it as a community project rather than just a road project, he said, which is why meaningful public consultation, absent on Scona Rd., is imperative. Wandzura thinks it could be a watershed moment determining how all “premier streets” are upgraded from now on.

One of them, Whyte Ave., was right outside the no. 7’s window. Wandzura pointed to extended street patios, rainbow crosswalks and a polka-dotted alley closed to cars, as evidence of his department’s cultural change. Getting there during a period of rapid growth is like “changing a tire while the car is in motion,” he said. But he insisted they’re getting there.

The unnamed City employee, however, was unconvinced and worried any public consultations could turn to a “bait and switch,” resulting in rigid compromises. The Oliver community will need to “push” if they want serious change, said the administrator.

But push for what? Asked what would make the west side of Jasper friendlier, Janet Heikel didn’t have a clear idea beyond more controlled cross-walks. All she had was a hunch: “For some reason, it’s like a drag race here.” At that point, she ceased being the the sage postwoman and became the common pedestrian.

But if enough pedestrians show up this fall, then maybe together they can help identify those reasons and make it a main street again.

The Oliver Community League has played a critical role in moving Jasper Ave.’s makeover from a rudimentary road project to a full-scale redesign. This timeline shows you how persistent advocacy and engagement makes a tangible difference.

Pre-2010–today: OCL fields residents’ complaints that Jasper Ave. is unpleasant, noisy, and, above all, unsafe. League minutes suggest it’s also car-centric, in disrepair and that it literally divides our community in two.

2011–today: OCL meets numerous times with your councillors Jane Batty (2011–2014) and Scott McKeen (2014–present) to discuss these concerns.

Fall 2014: City administration proposed that Jasper Ave. be repaved in the 2015–2018 Capital budget cycle.

Nov. 2014: OCL members Lisa Brown and Erin Toop present to the full City Council at the budget public hearing. They asked for a safe and welcoming Jasper Avenue, a place for Oliver residents to gather and connect, a street that brings our community together rather than divides it.

Dec. 2014: City Council agrees, voting unanimously to redirect the administration to run a public consultation process that would re-envision the ave.

Fall 2015: City of Edmonton-led consultations begin. The OCL’s message to you? “It’s important that community members participate. We encourage everyone to attend the public meetings or to provide feedback online.”

For information on the meetings or to learn how you can advocate with the OCL, visit olivercommunity.com or email info@olivercommunity.com.

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