I was recently engaged in a discussion about the equity versus equality graphic. You might have seen that graphic. It depicts three children watching a baseball game over a fence. One child is tall, one short, and one in between the other two. Equality is depicted as giving everyone an ‘equal chance’ in the form of a step stool of equal height. In this situation, the tallest child, who could already see over the fence, only has a far improved view, while the shortest child who could not see over the fence in the first place is still unable to see over the fence. Equity, on the other hand, is depicted as distributing resources ‘according to need.’ In the latter, the shortest child receives two step stools, whereas the tallest child who can already see over the fence is not given a stool at all. The result? Everyone is able to watch the game and engage in the enjoyment of social activity.
It’s a simple way to illustrate the difference between equality and equity.
But as H. L. Mencken noted “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
This equality-equity illustration proves the point.
In this case, the illustration fails to identify the structural issues for the situation and, worse, tends to blame the victim by suggesting there is some inherent failure of that individual (height or age in this illustration) such that they require greater resources.
We know that every child can do well in school if given the same resources – well funded schools with good teachers who care and a strong community that supports proactive educational decisions. We also know that doing well at school and part of those necessary resources requires healthy meals, a safe home environment and a good nights sleep. But healthy meals, safe housing and a good nights sleep depend on a variety of factors, most of which are structural (including who your parents are, how much money they earn, and what type of opportunities they had while growing up – few of which people can choose before they are born). When traffic keeps you awake all night, or wakes you up intermittently, violence plagues your neighbourhood, neighbourhoods are not serviced by good grocery stores or hospitals or parks or libraries or public transit, children suffer socially, emotionally and educationally, setting them up for fewer life opportunities later on.
We also know that other structural barriers, such as the ability to engage in society, make political decisions and influence decision makers is not evenly distributed. In fact, the illustration of the three children obliquely pays homage to these structures by incorporating a fence in the picture as though these structures are natural. They aren’t. In fact, the easiest way to start to create equity, liberation and democracy would be to remove – or change the nature of – the fence, then all three children could watch the baseball game without the need for costly (stop gap) interventions. Likewise, removing structural barriers in society that unfairly target certain populations in society is the simplest way to improve equity and create a fair, just democracy.
What struck me while I was reading through this equality versus equity debate was how closely it mirrors many of our daily conversations, those municipal issues that we like to complain about but are unable to solve, often because we focus on the proximate cause and not on upstream solutions. Often this is because the decision making architecture is beyond the ability of us as individuals, or even local groups, to modify. By doing so, we often identify answers that are “clear, simple, and wrong.” Take the emerging issue on distracted pedestrians.
There is a movement afoot to warn pedestrians to be visible and alert – wear brightly coloured clothes, watch for traffic and don’t walk distracted. Naturally this makes sense, but the concern is that institutionalising this as a legal requirement or social expectation sets up all pedestrians to be structurally biassed.
The problem is that when a pedestrian hits a vehicle, there is little consequence, but when a vehicle hits a pedestrian, there can be enormous consequences. In effect, this is a form of victim blaming, especially when insurance companies get involved. Pedestrians can make mistakes with little consequence to anyone else. Vehicle drivers need to be far more cautious and responsible, for when they make a mistake, very often the consequences are disastrous and tragic, especially for others – you know, those on the side of the vehicle where manufacturers do not put air bags and seat belts.
It simply makes sense that those in control of a technology (a vehicle in this case) that requires huge obligations and responsibilities to maintain control have the potential to do serious harm to others. Not so when a pedestrian is walking.
One problem is the infrastructure and how the city is designed and planned. When a vehicle moving at 30 kph hits a pedestrian, said pedestrian has a 90% chance of surviving. When the vehicle speed increases to 50 kph, that survival rate drops to 10%. In fact, a recent study in Toronto revealed “that less than 1% of injuries, and no deaths, happened on streets signed at 30 km/hr.” Another study shows that only a 10% increase in speed to 40 kph resulted in 17 times more collisions – including deaths – in an area with only 2.5 times as much road lane. So why, in the first instance, are our roads even designed to travel at anything above 30 kph? This is a loaded question to actually make you run through the arguments. Roads can be designed to ensure driving faster than a posted limit is very difficult. Policing should be better spent on more important activities than handing out traffic violations to time stressed soccer moms, or dealing with the aftermath of testosterone pumped chest bashing status displaying male teenagers. We also know that properly designed cities can reduce crime, and that includes our road, transportation and mobility infrastructure design. Assuming that a speed limit sign is the only structure to control or regulate speed is like assuming a fence should be constructed at all baseball games. It doesn’t work, its unfair, and it requires costly interventions for either equality or equity among road users. It also sets us up for long term environmental consequences like rising global temperatures and a long list of chronic diseases brought about by poor planning decisions, which, ironically, typically affect the most vulnerable the greatest.
But changing that infrastructure requires an enormous investment of time and effort – by planners, engineers, politicians, and the public – and it can be complicated to understand and complex to implement. It also raises many fundamental questions about our socially embedded, god-given use of vehicles. Most import, its beyond the decision making architecture of the average pedestrian or vehicle driver to act upon – for example, have you ever tried driving at 30 kph along any main artery in this city?
But by considering health and health equity in our planning decisions, we can avoid the problems of simple solutions. Bigger roads to move cars faster, fewer traffic lights to avoid delays, faster speed limits to reduce travel times. If only it were that simple. Haven’t you ever wished that everyone ‘else’ would just go home? Or have you ever wondered why the Sault, with twice as many road lane kilometers and only three quarters the drivers as 40 years ago has more congestion?
Like our age friendly policy at the city, thinking upstream for health equity can greatly advance progressive planning decisions and policies that improve our urban infrastructure for everyone.
When we turn our attention to actually solving the problems of pedestrian safety, we have a large basket of tools available, including traffic calming, slower speeds, disincentives to driving and better urban planning so walking becomes everyone’s default mode. Distracted drivers? We don’t allow alcohol in a vehicle, why allow a phone? When 80% (more than three quarters!) of pedestrian collisions are the fault of the driver, legislating or socially normalising that pedestrians be more visible at night is the wrong way to go. When 60% of all pedestrian fatalities occur at night or in low light conditions, clearly drivers are failing to drive for the conditions, opting instead to try and maintain the ‘posted’ speed limits. When only 13% of pedestrians are inattentive at the time of a collision, focusing efforts on reminding pedestrians to stay alert, regardless of the logic, seems like an inefficient way to prevent collisions. Why not legislate wildlife and pets to do the same? What’s next, licencing pedestrians? Let’s turn this crazy conversation around and resolve the problem rather than blame the victim.
In fact, if you want to talk about equity, there is one class of pedestrian who is likely to be disproportionately taking risks or not paying attention – young people and children. Which only adds to the urgency of resolving driver behaviour and structures to better control and manage driver behaviour.
Blaming the pedestrian is not unlike blaming a rape victim. Suggesting all pedestrians should act a certain way or dress a certain way is like telling all rape victims (in advance!) that they must dress and act a certain way. It might make some sense in either case, but not doing so should not produce a tragic outcome. Just ask judge Robin Camp.
Instead of entrenching inequitable structures by blaming victims – an individualist approach – we should look to change the structures that produce inequities and inequalities. If, for instance, you find it difficult as a driver to see dark objects, such as at night or in the rain, SLOW DOWN and drive for the conditions!! We need infrastructure that compels this sort of obligatory behaviour.
If we want equality, we need as many hub trails as there are road lanes in this city. If we want equality, all main roads in the city should be reconstructed like Gore Street. Despite the unhealthy environment sidewalks exist within, reducing snow removal on sidewalks, eliminating sidewalks and refusing to construct new sidewalks is best described as austerity.
If we want equity, we need the roads to be safe for all road users, and that will require speeds of less than 30kph maximum, along with better urban planning to make human centered mobility first and foremost the default mode, regardless of age, physical ability or time of year. We will need better laws, technology to enforce them and other measures. We will need an entire tool basket. Simple, clear solutions usually fail catastrophically in the end, and with this growing debate to blame the victims, we are setting ourselves up for future catastrophic failure where we will be scratching our heads as the most vulnerable suffer the greatest.