A rash of road deaths has awakened a feeling of alarm, almost despair, in Toronto. Jennifer Keesmaat, the city’s high-profile former chief planner, said the deaths were “unbearable” and called for a state of emergency. The urban thinker Richard Florida deplored “Toronto’s killing fields” and said the city’s failure to deal with the problem felt a bit like Americans’ failure to deal with guns. Mayor John Tory was “devastated personally.” He said he found it deeply troubling that so many pedestrians and cyclists have been killed this year.
The sense of urgency is welcome, the anguish understandable. On a single day this week, police announced the deaths of three people: a cyclist who was struck by a flatbed truck in the Annex; another cyclist hit and badly injured on Lake Shore Boulevard last month; and a pedestrian killed in a hit-and-run in the city’s northwest.
Close to 100 pedestrians and cyclists have lost their lives in the two years since city hall brought in its Vision Zero policy, which aims to reduce traffic-related fatalities to zero by 2021.
“No one seems to care,” Mr. Florida wrote. He said he has all but stopped riding his bike in the city − “the streets are just too dangerous.”
But before we declare an emergency, let’s remember a few things. To begin with, walking and cycling in Toronto is, for the most part, pretty safe. Thousands and thousands do it daily without incident. We shouldn’t surrender to fear. If the idea takes hold that it’s a jungle out there, even a “killing field,” then people will stop riding and walking to work. That’s bad for everyone. There is safety in numbers.
As Harvard professor Steven Pinker points out in his recent book on human progress, Enlightenment Now, the 5,000 pedestrians killed in the United States in 2014 is about a third the number killed in 1937, when the country had far fewer cars and a much smaller population. The number of motorists killed is way down, too, thanks to seat belts, airbags and all the other safety measures modern cars carry.
Let’s remember, as well, that this is not an intractable problem. A few sensible measures can do a lot to reduce death and injury on the roads.
One is lowering speed limits. France just reduced limits on main rural routes to 80 kilometres an hour from 90. It reckons this will save up to 400 lives a year. Toronto has already lowered limits in many places where pedestrians have been hit.
Another is to redesign intersections to make them safer for those on foot. That can mean adjusting curbs so that cars don’t turn as quickly, reducing crossing distances for pedestrians and putting in more red-light cameras to discourage lead-footed drivers.
The city has all sorts of other arrows in its quiver, from narrowing suburban streets to traffic-calming measures in school zones. That the things the city has done so far have not led to a dramatic drop in death and injury is a reason for concern but not panic. It will take time for this important shift to happen: From a city built around the car to a city built around people.
Finally, let’s remember that attitudes are changing. A few years ago, the fact that pedestrians and cyclists are routinely knocked down by cars in the street was considered the cost of urban life. As the outcry this week makes clear, a big shift is underway. People are saying “enough.”
The signal to politicians should be clear. They must gather their courage and push ahead.
Many of the changes will not be universally popular. There was pushback when the city contemplated redesigning Yonge Street in North York to make it safer and more walkable. City council put off a decision. There are still neanderthals who moan about the “war on the car” whenever the city puts in a new bike lane.
The thing to keep in mind amid all the headlines and all the pain is that it isn’t hopeless. This is a problem that can beaten.