The car's status is so established that many question those who get in its way.
But after a century-long reign by the automobile, Chicago has overthrown its primacy.
The city, whose history and size often leads to comparisons with Toronto, unveiled a new policy this year which says explicitly that pedestrians are most important. Their needs are to be given default priority in the planning, building and maintenance of the city's streetscape. The formal hierarchy puts transit second and bicycles third. Motor vehicles come last.
In Toronto – where huge transit plans threaten to overshadow simpler solutions for moving people, the mayor trumpets a pro-car line, and pedestrian collisions have been largely consistent for years – walking advocates and city staff are watching Chicago's example keenly.
Prioritizing pedestrians is an innovative idea based on a simple reality: Nearly all residents walk.
"We're committing to put the pedestrian first," explains Gabe Klein, Chicago's commissioner of transportation. "And that's not just any pedestrian. That's children, the elderly and disabled people. You design for them, it'll inherently be safe for the rest of us."
Mr. Klein was in Toronto recently for a series of events related to active transportation. With time running out on his visit, he sat for an interview on the way to the airport. In the back of the car, the unabashed urbanist discussed his love of ska and Vespas, praised Toronto's vitality and streetcar network and explained why Chicago takes walking so seriously.
"The transit user is also a pedestrian, the cyclist is also a pedestrian, the auto user is also a pedestrian," he said. "If the pedestrian is safe, the other modes are safe."
As a concrete example of the new approach, Mr. Klein laid out the sorts of physical changes that can be done to narrow a road, minimizing the distance pedestrians must go to cross and also putting a damper on vehicle speeds. More subtly, drivers can also be encouraged to slow down by road striping that creates the illusion of a smaller space.
These ideas are among a number of new approaches to pedestrian safety that are emerging around the world. Much of this is rooted in a shift in philosophy: now, walkers' deaths cannot be dismissed as unavoidable accidents.
Many changes stem from research showing that pedestrians have a 95 per cent chance of surviving a collision with a vehicle going 20 miles per hour but only a 15 per cent chance of surviving if hit at 40 miles per hour.
The Safe Streets plan in London, England notes that parts of the city where speeds were limited to 20 miles per hour saw a 42 per cent reduction in casualties and says that these lower limits will be coming to more streets. The plan accepts that people can be "unpredictable" and argues for the system to be redesigned so that "road users are not subjected to impact energy levels sufficient to cause fatal or serious, disabling injury." In Freiburg, Germany, in the neighbourhood of Vauban, speeds are strictly controlled and parking is extremely expensive, to discourage car use. And in the United States, Washington state has made it easier for municipalities to cut speed limits.
In Toronto, too, there is a growing recognition that pedestrianism is crucial to a good urban environment.
"It's about offering a really high quality of life," said Toronto chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat, who is keen to spread density and create more walkable neighbourhoods.
"There's really a whole series of things that we value – like our health, like clean air and water, like having a strong sense of community – that are all linked in together with a pedestrian city or a pedestrian community. So the cool thing about walking is that it responds to, or generates, a whole variety of positive attributes in a community that we generally agree are desired."
Toronto's walkability varies greatly, though, and in many parts of the city people on foot face a too-risky daily reality. Although pedestrian deaths have been cut in half in the last two decades, the number of people hit by vehicles remains stubbornly steady at around 2,200 annually.
City research shows that pedestrians crossing arterial roads outside the downtown core are most likely to be hit. It's not clear why, but theories point to wider roads, which take longer to cross; faster vehicle speeds, which mean less time to react; and drivers who are less accustomed to pedestrians.
Road design may also be a factor. Staff have scoured the data to identify the riskiest spots and are working to craft individual improvements for the 10 most dangerous intersections.
And in a small detail that speaks to evolving attitudes, transportation staff who tackle these problems tend to avoid the term "accident."
"Accident implies that … those involved don't want to take responsibility for it," said Mike Brady, manager of traffic safety in the city's transportation department. "Each one of these is preventable. Something has failed." He prefers the term "collision," a distinction that is increasingly common among transportation experts and law enforcement, including the Toronto Police Service. Although the difference between an accident and a collision may seem semantic, it gets at the idea of responsibility and blame.
The city's core, which is congested, tends to be safer. Streets are generally narrower, drivers usually can't go too fast and there's a greater sense that pedestrians are a legitimate part of the streetscape. Scramble intersections at two key downtown corners give the whole zone over to pedestrians, allowing them to cross in all directions.
Pedestrian status reaches its peak in Kensington Market, probably the only area of Toronto where people on foot come close to having full equality.
Here, walkers mingle freely with people riding bicycles, on skateboards and driving cars. In a vaguely anarchic dance – one that can, admittedly, bring tensions – the sheer mass of pedestrians spilling onto the road forces other users to slow down.
The situation in this neighbourhood bears close resemblance to a woonerf . The Dutch concept, which means "living yard," does away with curbs and essentially turns the roadway into pedestrian space. Motorists are allowed to enter if they drive at walking pace.
Although Kensington evolved organically, formally planned woonerf –like areas are coming to Toronto. A version of the idea, albeit one with rolled curbs, is being included at a new development in the West Don Lands, and something similar is being installed near St. Lawrence Market.
"Enhancements around active transportation … do, in most cases, benefit all users," said Fiona Chapman, manager of pedestrian projects at the city's transportation department. "If you have good active transportation options … then maybe people are less likely to take their car for short trips."
WHERE CARS AND PEDESTRIANS COLLIDE
Where there are transit stops, and nearby attractions that draw pedestrians. Sheppard Avenue East at Provost Drive (#1) in North York is an example, with Ikea, other retail, a medical centre and condominium towers all near the corner.
Where "excess capacity" leads to speeding. Wide, flat roads with little traffic invite faster driving, which is dangerous to pedestrians; this is the case at #2, St.Dennis Drive and Deauville Lane in Flemingdon Park.
Where "elderly demand" is high. The city assigns a score for the number of elderly people who use an intersection; Neilson Road and McLevin Avenue, in Malvern, scores 4.5 out of 5.
THE CITY'S TOOLKIT: HOW TO FIX THEM
The city is considering some of these changes to improve different intersections.
Paint zebra markings and stop bars on all four approaches into the intersection.
Put solid lines on the road surface, to guide drivers into the correct lane as they turn.
Make walk signals longer to give people more time to cross; add pedestrian-activated traffic signals.
Install signs to remind drivers to pay attention to pedestrians crossing.
Add " leading pedestrian intervals " – signals for pedestrians to cross when other traffic must stop.
Move a bus stop across an intersection to reduce conflicts between pedestrians and drivers.