Students target campus safety with project

Paul Mayne // Western News

Heath Sciences students Adrianna Guiffre, left, and Emily McLachlan are hoping a study their Cognitive Ergonomics class completed will lead to better pedestrian safety on campus and, long term, perhaps a vehicle-free campus.

What started as a class assignment has turned into a call for a car-free campus to address what students describe as “a toxic mix” of pedestrian and vehicle traffic.

Days after Emily McLachlan, Adrianna Guiffre and the rest of their Cognitive Ergonomics class submitted an assignment on campus safety, first-year Health Sciences student Andrea Christidis was killed by a vehicle while walking on campus.

“That really struck a chord with our class,” McLachlan said. “So we then decided to dedicate our entire class to pedestrian safety. We changed our class. We voted on it. We didn’t want her death to be for nothing.”

The initial study looked at the behavior of more than 16,000 pedestrians and 5,000 vehicles at a pair of campus locations. The class later expanded the study, adding in more than 500 photos and a pedestrian safety culture survey to gauge attitudes of both pedestrians and drivers.

“These assignments were definitely eye-opening. As a pedestrian, you know the campus is busy. But when you’re sitting there for two hours and watching traffic interaction, it’s mindboggling,” Guiffre said. “You’re like, ‘OK, that needs to change.’ It’s been eye-opening, yes, but it’s also been frustrating. What’s it going to take to convince people we need to do something?”

The 82-page student-led report, Moving Towards a Pedestrian Paradise: Understanding Pedestrian Safety Culture on Western University’s Campus, shows equal culpability when it comes to finger-pointing about who’s doing what while traveling campus.

While 87.4 per cent of students admitted to jaywalking, another 60.8 per cent were observed crossing at a red light/don’t cross signal and 42.2 per cent were observed not looking before crossing the road. More than 86 per cent of drivers agreed pedestrians are always distracted with their phones or other devices.

But blame is a two-way street.

Survey results also showed 24.1 per cent of drivers admitting to texting while driving on campus and another 30.1 per cent admitted to accelerating through an intersection. Pedestrians agreed, with 81.5 per cent saying vehicles took the right of way or didn’t wait until they finished crossing and another 43.6 per cent said they’ve had a near miss with a vehicle while crossing a campus road.

“It’s shocking. Each thinks the other has the right of way and that’s where we came up with the idea of a ‘toxic mix,’” McLachlan said. “We have drivers that are distracted, we have pedestrians that are distracted, and both think the other is responsible for safety.”

McLachlan and Guiffre would love to see a day when campus is vehicle free – and 70 per cent of students agree they want to see Western favour pedestrian travel over vehicles.

“We believe Western should be a pedestrian paradise, one where you don’t have to worry about getting hit by a car,” McLachlan said.

But changing such an engrained way of doing things on campus is not going to be easy. In the short term, an increase in traffic and pedestrian signage, enforced campus speed limits, maintained crosswalks and walkways and guardrails at certain spots on campus would be a start, they said.

Long term, the addition of pedestrian bridges, elimination of campus parking lots and limiting campus traffic to only emergency vehicles, buses, handicap vehicles and delivery trucks would go a long way in creating a safer and healthier campus, Guiffre said. General vehicle traffic would stop at the Health Sciences parking lot, the Western Road Gates, Richmond Gates, traffic lights at the hospital on Western Road and just past Robarts Research Institute on Perth Drive.

The students realize accommodation would be needed for students and staff who live off campus and drive to work each day. Shifting all interior campus parking lots to the periphery is another a possibility, with parking garages at Springett and Huron Flats.

“We’re hoping to change convenience, so that a five-minute walk from your car won’t be a big deal,” Guiffre said. “There are other universities that are doing this, like McGill and Windsor. It’s definitely possible, but the main point is to get everyone on the same page with the data results and what is happening on campus.

“We want to have Western provide the best student experience, but we also want it to be the safest experience, for both physical and mental health. It’s not impossible.”

The students presented their findings to Western administration and deans, as well as to the London Chief of Police – with hopes of speaking to the Board of Governors, as well.

McLachlan and Guiffre realize change will not happen overnight. Since they are graduating this year, they won’t be around to see their goals achieved. But that does not stop them from pushing ahead.

“Even if a particular change takes seven to 10 years, we are not going to be part of it, but hopefully we can be the ones who initiated that change and helped push it through. We want to inform students that our voices matter. Something has to be done.”

Guiffre added it’s sad it took a tragic incident to get people to raise concerns. But she and her classmates won’t let the conversation end.

“Something needs to change here because the path we’re going down is not leading to anywhere good,” she said. “How many more near misses do we have to have? I hope none.”