What protections should a municipality provide toward very young children using a playground they have constructed next to a high-speed cycling path?

A new playground has been completed next to the Thames Valley Parkway (TVP) south of Trafalgar Street in London, Ontario. Concerns about a northbound  downgrade on the path were previously expressed as high cyclist speeds were occurring on the approach to an underpass at Trafalgar Street where the design of the path caused safety issues. The problems have now been increased as a result of a new playground, designed for use by young toddlers, that was constructed adjacent to the path which will expose very young children to the high speed cyclists descending the downslope of the path.

Several previous articles were published on the Gorski Consulting website dealing with down-slope speeds on the Thames Valley Parkway south of Trafalgar Street and these are listed below:

“Speed of Recreational Cyclists on Down Grades”: October 8, 2018

“Speed of Recreational Cyclists on Down-Slope of Trafalgar Bike Path”: June 19, 2020

“Additional Safety Problems at Thames Valley Parkway Near Trafalgar Street”: June 16, 2021

“A Need to Recognize That Slopes Affect Recreational Cyclist Speed”: June 29, 2021

The location of concern is shown in the Google Maps view below. The construction of an overpass at the Canadian National Railway (CNR) line in 2018 caused the Thames Valley Parkway (TVP) to be elevated and this elevation was reduced as northbound users of the TVP approached the bridge crossing Pottersburg Creek before descending further into an underpass of Trafalgar Street.

Previous testing and observations noted that northbound cyclists reached their maximum speed about 150 metres north of the CNR overpass. This area is shown below.

The south end of the Pottersburg Creek bridge is located at 295 metres north and the Trafalgar Street underpass is located 345 metres north of the CNR overpass.

The photo below is a view looking south along the TVP where the new playground was completed on July 1, 2021. Note how the TVP contains a relatively sharp curve as it passes the playground and that the playground itself is very close to the edge of the path with no barriers positioned between the two.

View, looking south, taken on July 4, 2021, of the new playground shortly before a video session was commenced to explore the status of safety problems at the site.

The photo below is a view looking south from approximately 150 metres, showing the CNR overpass in the distant background and the extent of the downgrade of the path approaching the camera.

View, taken on July 4, 2021, looking south along the TVP toward the CNR overpass in the background.

The photo below is a view, looking north, from the 150 metre location, looking toward the new playground located in the background. Note there have been no warning signs posted adjacent to the path to warn users of the potential presence of small children at the playground.

View, looking north from the 150-metre location of the TVP showing the new playground in the background.

The photo below is a view looking north on the TVP, closer to the new playground. Note that the path is relatively straight on approach to the playground but the path takes a substantial curve to the right adjacent to the playground.

View, looking north along the TVP toward the new playground. This photo was taken on July 4, 2021 shortly before a video session was commenced to document cyclists and users of the path at the playground.

The photo below shows the new playground and the extent of curvature in the path adjacent to it. The curve presents a challenge to northbound cyclists and other users as they are unable to detect whether children near the playground are located on the playground or have moved onto the path surface.

View, looking north, showing extent of curve in the path at the playground making it difficult for northbound cyclists to detect whether children are on the path surface. This photo was taken on July 4, 2021.

The extent of the potential safety problems at the site was challenging to evaluate as some degree of documentation of children at the playground would be required. Yet, creating video and photos of children typically raises concerns from parents and others who do not understand why these actions are taken. Thus it was not possible to position cameras close to the playground where optimum documentation could be obtained. However a single video camera was placed a substantial distance south of the playground and, by using the zoom function, a closer view of the area was obtained as shown in the photo below.

View of a video camera that was placed a substantial distance south of the playground but sufficiently close to enable a documentation of children on or crossing the path.

The positioning of several other video cameras to the south and north of the playground enabled the documentation of northbound cyclist speeds as they approached and exited the area of the playground.

Subsequent review of the video showed that two toddlers (shown in the photo below) were observed crossing the path on numerous occasions within a period of about 47 minutes. It was decided to focus on the actions of these children to determine how often they were exposed to the danger of high speed cyclists on the path. The subject children were of a young age but were typical of the age of children using the playground. For identification purposes they were assigned the labels “4-year-old” and “2-year-old” although their age was not known.

View of the two subject toddlers shown here crossing the path to reach the playground.

It was observed that two adult women were picnicking on the grass on the opposite (west) side of the path adjacent to the playground. The two toddlers were observed running back and forth from the picnicking women to the playground on a continuous basis. This sort of scenario could repeat itself in the future and demonstrates how parents may not comprehend that they could be exposing their children to danger.

A video session was conducted on July 4, 2021 for approximately 2 hours between 1710 and 1920 hours. During this time all users of the path were documented in terms of their sex, approximate age, whether they were pedestrians, riding cycles, or using some specialized transport device such as a skateboard or roller blades. This documentation occurred between the 125 and 295-metre locations along the path. The location of the new playground was approximately north of the 225 metre location and continued to slightly north of the 275 metre location.

With respect to northbound cyclists it was not possible to obtain a complete documentation of their travel because many of them did not complete the full distance of travel on the path between the 125 and 295-metre locations. Of the 21 northbound cyclists who were documented over the two-hour period only 14 of them completed their travel on the path within the 125-295-metre zone.  Six of the 14 cyclists reached a maximum speed of over 40 km/h. This represents almost half of the observed, northbound cyclists.

Three of the 14 cyclists momentarily rode off the path, to the left, near the playground. The maximum speed of each of these 3 cyclists (Observations 3, 8 and 9) was over 40 km/h. It suggests this action was performed so that the 3 high-speed cyclists would be clear of the area where the small children were located. The descriptions and speeds of the 14 cyclists are shown in the table below.

The three fast-moving cyclists that exited the path near the playground had the three lowest speeds (16.08, 13.90 and 15.72 km/h respectively) as they passed the playground because their alternate route took them over a longer distance. Thus they were travelling faster than indicated. When those three cyclists are removed from the table this leaves only 11 remaining. Of those 11 remaining riders, 7 were travelling at over 25 km/h as they passed the playground.  While one might not classify a speed of 25 km/h as high, it is never-the-less substantially higher than the average speed of a recreational cyclist travelling on a typical path which would be in the range of 16 to 18 km/h.

In the above table it can be noted that the average speed of northbound cyclists in the zone of 125-150 metres was about 38.7 km/h. In comparison, observations of similar cyclists on June 2, 2020 showed the average speed of 12 northbound cyclists was 39.93 km/h between the 150-175 metre location. Thus the speeds are similar.

An example of the danger to the toddlers is shown in the two photos below which are frames taken from the video. These views show the 2-year-old crossing the path while two northbound cyclists are approaching the area. While the toddler is fairly visible at this location the scenario would be different if the crossing occurred further to the north (toward the background) where there is a curve and there is a view obstruction caused by the bench. Furthermore children of such a small age are unpredictable and are capable of running into the path of a cyclist at illogical times when a cyclist would not expect such a crossing.

This view was taken from video prior to the commencement of official documentation of activities at the site. It exemplifies the scenario that could unfold when very young children are near a path where cyclists are travelling at high speed.

 

The 2-year-old toddler shown here was observed having difficulty coordinating his walking as is typical of children of that age. Even if the child detected the presence of an approaching cyclist it could not be able to move quickly off the path.

In approximately 46.5 minutes of observation the two toddlers were observed to cross the cycling path 43 times, 28 times by the 4-year-old and 15 times by the 2-year-old.

Is the 4-year-old toddler in this view running on the grass off the path or is he running on the path surface? Because of the curve it would be difficult for a northbound cyclist to be certain and such uncertainty could delay a response to avoid the child if it ran onto the path in front of a cyclist.

In all 28 observations of the 4-year-old toddler, he always ran across the path, he never walked. In contrast the 2-year-old toddler never ran but always shuffled along at slow speed. Both of these motions are a problem. The fast-moving 4-year-old was capable of darting into the path quickly and would likely not give an approaching cyclist a reasonable opportunity to see him and avoid him. In contrast the 2-year-old’s slow motion made him more vulnerable because he could not walk fast enough to clear the path and he was too young to process the concept that his position on the path was a danger.

It is apparent that many parents or guardians of such children are not aware of the dangers that exist at this site. The playground provides an enticing attraction for parents who want their children to experience the new playground. Even if there is some apprehension, there is also a level of blind faith in parents that designers of the site would not expose children to unacceptable levels of harm. Incidents of minor injury, if properly documented could be the “canaries in the coal mine” whose warnings could lead to official recognition of a safety problem. Yet such proper documentation is rare whenever children, or pedestrians are involved. Police reports are rarely, or never, generated unless there is a serious injury or death.

The lack of reporting of injuries is known but was clearly reinforced when an injury incident occurred during the videotaping session but out of the view of the video cameras. While Zygmunt Gorski was sitting on a bench south of the playground he observed a teenage male and female fall on the steepest portion of the downslope in the vicinity of 50 to 100 metres north of the CNR overpass. The initial fall by the male in a red t-shirt was particularly harsh and he laid on the edge of the path for several seconds. The second fall by the female, who had been travelling at a substantial distance behind, was not as harsh. Upon reaching their location Gorski observed that the female only sustained a slight cut and abrasion to one of her elbows.

In contrast it was difficult to get the male’s attention as he was moaning and bending over from pain. There was an obvious, wound in the area of his right elbow. But his level of consciousness appeared normal as he was exhibiting his reactions to his acute pain. As the teenagers left the area and continued walking northward down the slope, the male continued to moan, bend over occasionally and hold his right arm with his left. A photo was taken of the pair as they approached the playground and this is shown below.

This view shows the two skateboarders who fell on the steepest part of the downslope. The male in the red t-shirt sustained a painful injury as demonstrated by his subsequent expressions of pain which continued as he walked.

Later review of the video session identified that the two teenagers had passed by the cameras along with two other teenagers approximately 15 minutes before the fall. All four teenagers were originally southbound as shown in the two frames from video shown below.

View of four teenagers as they are travelling southbound past the playground area. The third male (with red t-shirt and cap) was the one who fell approximately 15 minutes after this view was taken. The fourth teenager, a female, is shown in the background with her upper body hidden from view by tree branches.

 

This view shows the male who fell at the right edge of the video frame and the female teenager riding a short distance behind. It appeared that these two teenagers were struggling to keep up with the other two teenagers who were riding ahead.

The table below provides a full documentation of the speeds of the four teenagers from the time that they passed through the south end of the Pottersburg Creek bridge (at the 295 metre marker) up to the time that they passed through the 125 metre marker and then their subsequent return northbound. They were initially travelling southbound then, approximately 15 minutes later, they were observed travelling northbound. The two teenagers who fell did so during their northbound travel along the steepest portion of the downslope north of the CNR overpass.

Some frames taken from the video cameras are shown below. During their southbound travel the two leading teenagers seemed to be waiting for the other two and thus their speed was slower than perhaps they would have wanted. Near the 150-metre marker the leading teenager (with the white socks) was seen almost coming to a stop and looking back at the other two who were struggling to keep up. This view from the 150-metre camera is shown below.

View from the camera at the 150-metre marker showing the leading teenager who slowed and almost stopped as he looked back and waited for the other two teenagers who were struggling to keep up. The other rider on the push scooter also reduced his speed while waiting for the others to catch up.

Once the red-shirted and female teenagers caught up to the leading riders the two leading riders began to accelerate up the slope, as shown in the video frame below from the 125-metre camera.

View from the 125-metre camera showing the two leading riders begin to accelerate as the red-shirted rider had caught up to their location.

The video frame below is taken from the 125-metre camera and shows how the red-shirted teenager struggled to accelerate as he reached the marker and he partially rode off the edge of the path.

View from the 125-metre camera showing how the two leading teenagers accelerated while the red-shirted teenager struggled to keep up.

As the red-shirted teenager passed the 125-metre marker he seemed to give up with riding the skateboard as he was not attaining enough speed and he reached down to pick-up the board, as shown in the video frame below.

This view from the 125-metre camera shows the red-shirted teenager reaching down to pick-up his skateboard as he was not achieving the desired speed up the slope.

Upon picking up his skateboard the red-shirted teenager began running with it up the slope, as shown in the frame below.

View from the 125-metre camera showing the red-shirted teenager running up the slope while carrying his skateboard.

The female teenager continued to ride behind the three male riders. For brief periods, as shown below, she managed to ride her board up the slope.

This view from the 125-metre camera shows the female teenager pushing her board up the slope.

Fifteen minutes later the video cameras caught the two leading teenagers descending rapidly northbound along the path. The leading teenager (in the white socks) appeared to  be having no difficulty travelling down the slope even through his speed reached almost 40 km/h. The other leading teenager was likely able to keep his stability due to the steering available to him on his push scooter.

View from the 125-metre camera showing the two leading riders who attained a speed of almost 40 km/h during their northbound travel on the downslope of the path.

Even while approaching the area of the new playground the lead rider continued to travel at high speed, as shown in the video frame below.

This view from the 150-metre camera shows the lead rider and his follower travelling northbound toward the area of the playground. Travelling at high speed the lead rider’s ability, though advanced, would not allow him to reduce his speed with the same level of efficiency as a cyclist. This over-confidence in his ability could have consequences if he were to encounter a small toddler on the path.

As the lead rider and his follower approached the area of the new playground their speed was still over 35 km/h, as shown in the previous table. In the video frame below the two riders are shown passing the 225 metre marker as captured by the camera at that location.

This view is a frame taken from the camera at the 225-metre marker. It shows the lead rider and his follower travelling at about 35 km/h while approaching the area of the new playground.

Another view of the two leading riders is shown in the video frame below. This is as the riders are approaching the area of the new playground. Fortunately there were no little children on or near the path as they passed through.

Teenagers, as they mature, test their limits, as a natural process of learning and discovery. In doing so they make mistakes in their judgment. Here the teenagers are shown approaching the area of the playground at high speed.

The lead rider in the video frames shown above and below had developed an advanced level of ability in riding his skateboard yet he failed to understand that his actions influenced the riders that accompanied him. While testing his abilities this young rider did not take into consideration that his actions might influence the riders he was with. Maturity of thought and understanding takes time to develop and sometimes, in some persons, it never reaches an acceptable level. Yet, this difference in human ability must be accepted as not everyone can be the best in everything they do. Designers of municipal paths must understand that there will be all levels of humans using a public facility and design must take into consideration those who are physically or mentally below the norm.

Upon reaching the south end of the Pottersburg Creek bridge the lead rider had to make an adjustment in his travel and he is shown here making it successfully while still travelling at about 30 km/h. While he left the area he appeared to be unaware that two of his travel companions had fallen on the path behind him.

Victim blaming is a common strategy when public infrastructure fails to meet acceptable standards. If a toddler is struck and injured while on the path this can be blamed on the child, the parent who should have been more careful or the cyclist, skateboarder or roller-bladder who was travelling too fast and was not reasonably attentive. Municipalities and the Province of Ontario have large Risk Management departments with savvy lawyers that know how to escape liability.

The City of London ought to have known that the construction of the overpass over the CNR railway in 2018 would produce consequences as a result of the downslopes created on both sides of the overpass. In extending the path northward toward the Trafalgar Street underpass they also had an opportunity to consider how the design would affect pedestrians, cyclists and all other users as the new path made a poor connection with the original underpass at Trafalgar Street. After these failures they had an additional opportunity to consider the safety implications of placing a playground, designed for use by very young children, next to the TVP when they ought to have known that users such as cyclists, skateboarders or roller bladders would be travelling at heightened speed along the downgrade toward the area of the playground. These failures will now be difficult to correct. It will not be possible to simply dig up the whole area and start over. Yet there are no easy solutions to the problems that have been created over an extended time of misapplication. There ought to be properly functioning advisory committees of independent persons in the City of London who have some reasonable ability to make the City’s administration and politicians aware of potential problems and make them accountable for such failures. Yet, as have been demonstrated from our experience, attempts to present independent studies at such advisory committee meetings have been thwarted by City staff.

Regrettably the only solution to failures in acceptable design and maintenance of public infrastructure is the courts. Yet some judges have failed to understand their obligation to protect the vulnerable public. Accountability of public officials and institutions are cornerstones in the proper functioning of any society. Yet there are instances where that accountability has fallen short in the Province of Ontario.