Thu | Jan 21, 2021

Rachelle McFarlane | All I want for Christmas is...sidewalks!

Published:Sunday | December 22, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Each day, Lorna Tennant is forced to push her eight-year-old wheelchair-bound daughter, Taffiah Stevens, along the traffic-laden Slipe Pen Road in St Andrew because of obstacles on the sidewalk.

As the bustling season begins to crescendo, the multimillion-dollar Christmas roadworks are in full swing. We see curbs being painted. We see slapdash asphalting. We see the overgrown shrubbery being cleared. However, with all the merry workers along the road network, the country laments as the number of road fatalities keeps climbing, even with just a few days to go in the year, inclusive of two very busy weekends.

As the year 2019 winds down, there have been many fatalities on our Jamaican roads, 413 as of December 18, and many have visited the accident and emergency department (A&E) of hospitals across the island due to road traffic crashes (RTCs). Since 2011, the Ministry of Health and Wellness data estimate a total of 94,850 A&E visits due to RTCs, with an annual average of 11,856.

The Jamaican road network boasts many design deficiencies, inadequate facilities, poor maintenance and constant disruptions or pavement breaches. The latter is mostly due to the erratic work schedule of the utility companies. They seem to take pride in destroying recently paved road surfaces and sidewalks, much to the distress of road users and a nonchalant National Works Agency.

However, this article is not to discuss the dilapidated broken road payments, but to tell Santa my Christmas wish as I prepare to head to Grand Market.

Santa, all I want for Christmas are stroller/wheelchair accessible and properly paved sidewalks.

The National Road Safety Council has recorded more than 400 fatalities on our streets, with approximately 64 per cent of them being vulnerable road users, mostly pedestrians. This figure is alarming, especially when we consider past incidents of pedestrians being mowed down or wheelchair victims being crushed by Jamaica Urban Transit Company buses.

Road users across the island, especially motorists, seemed to have lost their marbles as they seek to manoeuvre this deadly thoroughfare being created and somewhat maintained by the Government. It has turned into a tragedy. A tragedy of the commons that, despite efforts by authorities and international partners, Jamaica has been unable to mitigate. One key reason for this is the unprecedented and relentless effort by the authorities focusing on ONLY trying to curb road-user behaviour. To date, they are still clueless, not realising that safe road networks are more than just seeking to increase the fines attached to road infractions, but critical emphasis needs to be placed on the design and furnishings for the infrastructure.

NO PROVISION FOR PEDESTRIANS

According to the Jamaica General Insurance Company Limited (JNGI) 2012 report, listed among the top-10 reasons for fatalities are three relating to pedestrians: (2) pedestrian stepping/walking/running/verging into the road off footpath; (6) pedestrian crossing road from nearside; and (9) pedestrian crossing road off nearside. Ouch!

Basically, pedestrians are being forced into the path of motorised vehicles, since no provision has been made for them. Even to the untrained eye, we have driven through residential zones and commercial zones and we have seen ramshackle, overgrown, converted to extensions of stalls, blocked by utility poles/panels, or absent sidewalks. So, this simply forces the pedestrians, young and old, able and disabled, fast and slow, to walk on the paved surface, aka the road.

It is baffling that the authorities responsible for managing our road network can approve rehabilitation works and even brand new projects that exclude the creation of sidewalks for pedestrians.

Goshen, Luna, Jack’s Hills, Meadowbrook, Whitehall, and Brown’s Town come to mind as I drive past homes, shops, churches, schools, and post offices with people walking in the road. Motorists have to slow to a crawl before passing them due to the oncoming traffic.

Is it that, as we seek to actualise the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals numbers three, 11 and 13, in improving health and protecting the environment by walking more and driving less, we do this to our peril? For example, the programme Jamaica Moves, from the ministry that is faced with the high expense of treating road fatalities, is saying to citizens, “get up, move your body; instead of driving to the corner store or supermarket, walk or ride a bicycle”. But for some, this may be their last trip.

THE TERRIFYING STROLL

So, OK, let us try walking to Loshusan Supermarket from the foot of Jack’s Hill Road.

Picture this, a picturesque day with the sun just covered by a single cloud. It would be a cool afternoon stroll. So, I decided to put on my sneakers and walk. I even decided to get the stroller and take my toddler.

My first obstacle was that the stroller could not go on to the sidewalk – it is a sloping hill, overgrown and too narrow. So I had to push it along on the street.

Whoosh! A taxi man passed at full speed heading up into the hills. I jumped, but I managed to keep my composure and then keep moving. Then, to my dismay, there came two trucks carrying material. I quickly had to lift the stroller into the overgrown bushy sidewalk.

Oh my, I was scared then, but too far from home and closer to the supermarket. So I pressed on, then the worst happened. At full speed, heading towards us was an old SUV. It dropped in a pothole, blew out a tyre and began to swerve.

I began to panic; my baby and I are in the road this time, nowhere to go. I closed my eyes to the screeching of tyres. Then silence. Praise the Lord! It came to a stop on the other side of the road by the drain/fording.

I quickly ran towards the Barbican Road where the sidewalk began.

What an experience! What an encounter with death for the sake of reducing body fat and carbon footprints!

To heck with saving the globe and the health budget. I instantly decided against the goods I wanted to buy and quickly called a taxi to take us back home.

This seemed like a horror movie, but pedestrians are exposed to similar dangers on a daily basis traversing the road network while heading to school or work or even just to jog in the mornings to keep fit. These activities can quickly turn into a tragedy and you lose your life or, even worse, become disabled with a new burden of being unable to work with high medical bills for physiotherapy.

LEGACY PROJECT IN SERIOUS JEOPARDY

Gordon House and responsible agencies, let us really look at the Vision 2030 in creating sustainable cities and make prudent decisions. Most of us travel overseas and we take for granted that citizens and visitors are outside walking on sidewalks; children riding their bikes on sidewalks; people standing at the bus stop on sidewalks; wheelchairs, strollers, walking canes, you name it, all of them are on the sidewalks.

This is not a feature ONLY for developed countries; it is a feature of governments that see the importance of protecting its citizens; its working population that drive the economy.

It is estimated that 80 per cent of all road fatalities are among the working population ages 15-65 years. In the mornings and evenings, the majority of the road users are about productive activities that turn the economy. So why should I be placed at a disadvantage of losing my life just for being a productive citizen?

The Legacy Project is in serious jeopardy. The project has devised new death traps for citizens who seek to manoeuvre and jump hurdles as they travel daily.

Gordon House, show us that we matter; ‘walk foots’ matter. Show us that the legacy projects across the island are inclusive of all road users. Show us that you really want us to be fit so as to reduce the economic burden of lifestyle diseases.

Sidewalks are critical. Sidewalks are not frilly-frilly fluff that are constructed or included in road projects only when you feel the need. Sidewalks are not extensions of property for landscaping. Well-designed and integrated sidewalks are critical to the integrity of the road pavement by sealing edges, creating path for run-off via surface drains, and also essential for the safe travelling of non-motorised road users by separating them from motorised transport.

By now, the Road Safety Unit and the National Road Safety Council should realise that their road user behaviour only strategies to curb road fatalities are not working.

In addition to human (road user behaviour) and vehicle factors, the World Health Organization (WHO) road safety initiatives give kudos to Haddon Matrix, which emphasises the road environment. Agencies need to focus on the road environment which deals with the construction and maintenance of safe thoroughfares; including safe design, proper alignment, pedestrian facilities, crash protections, speed reducers, etc.

IT’S TIME NOW; let’s get it right. Let’s really try and save 300 lives for 2020.

I make one finally recommendation, well, Christmas wish. Let’s make sidewalks the focus of Labour Day 2020. Let’s get all stakeholders involved, especially the National Housing Trust, National Works Agency, National Water Commission, the Jamaica Public Service, and the parish councils/municipalities.

Gordon House, I am a walk foot, treating my body right, and I do MATTER! Join me on social media in trending this hashtag #SidewalksLabourDay2020 #WalkFootsMatter.

- Rachelle McFarlane is a senior lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica. Email feedback to rachelle.mcfarlane@utech.edu.jm and columns@gleanerjm.com