Albert Koehl is a road-safety advocate, environmental lawyer, and co-founder of Bells on Bloor. He served on the Ontario Chief Coroner’s 2012 expert panel on pedestrian safety.
For a long time, the priority on public roads has been to move as many cars, as fast as possible.
This has left us with some troubling consequences, especially the persistently high death and injury toll for people who walk or bicycle. When politicians do acknowledge the road-safety problem, it’s often to tout education campaigns about how to avoid the danger – instead of actually dealing with it. This approach is changing, albeit slowly.
In Toronto last year, 43 pedestrians were killed, eclipsing the previous year’s carnage. The numbers are largely predictable; only the identity of victims is accidental.
The city is now initiating safety measures such as lower speed limits, mid-block pedestrian crossings, and more bike lanes. But progress is often thwarted by long-reigning attitudes that accord every car trip superordinate importance while treating the interests of non-motorists as secondary – or even a nuisance.
In the 1950s, when cities sprawled and car use increased sharply, governments responded by obsessively widening and extending roads. In older Toronto, new road space was pilfered from pedestrians.
In 1953, Fred Gardiner, then chair of Metro Toronto Council said: “I would cut five or six feet off many sidewalks, shove the poles back and create two new lanes for traffic.” He complained about “millions of dollars invested in useless concrete in this city in sidewalks that are hardly used at all.”
Today, sidewalks are no longer a safe refuge – pedestrians are killed even there.
And while auto makers have made cars safer for occupants, they continue to promote power, acceleration and speed that increases the peril for pedestrians.
Governments, meanwhile, remain timid about using modern technology to enforce speed limits. It’s no surprise that pedestrian deaths are rising as a proportion of road deaths.
In the 1970s, bicycles again became an exciting option as the unsavoury parts of our love affair with cars became evident: contaminated air, energy dependence and poor physical fitness.
But the reluctance of decision-makers to grant cyclists even a sliver of the road discouraged many people from taking up cycling.
Indeed, since the “bicycle boom” of 1971, the City of Toronto (formerly Metro Toronto) has built fewer bike lanes (125 kilometres) than the number of cyclists (146) it has watched die on its roads.
The fight for a bike lane on Bloor St. is instructive on the low standing of safety.
For decades, Bloor has been a popular route for cyclists for the same reason it attracts motorists: It’s a convenient way to get to work or school, or to shop or dine.
Last May, City Council finally approved a Bloor bike lane – or at least a modest 2.4-km pilot lane.
Although the lane has been phenomenally successful as measured in ridership, its future remains uncertain.
In Toronto, questions by councillors usually reflect road priorities: Will there be longer travel times for (single occupant) cars? Will parking spaces be lost? Will motor “traffic” congestion increase?
It’s no coincidence that only 2 per cent of Toronto roads have bike lanes, or that road congestion continues to worsen.
A local merchant’s claim that the bike lane hurts business is obediently reported by the media with no scrutiny of more likely causes such as changing consumer tastes, a new competitor down the road or higher business costs – such as notoriously high rents on Bloor spurred (ironically) by the area’s walkability, bike-friendliness and access to two subway lines.
A study by the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation pegs motorists’ contribution to local businesses at a meagre 10 per cent.
Education for pedestrians and cyclists remains a popular response to the safety problem because it deflects attention from the real and present danger of automobiles.
By implicitly blaming victims – despite Toronto Public Health’s finding that 67 per cent of pedestrian casualties involve a motorist’s road infraction – politicians absolve themselves of responsibility for the poor safety record of public roads.
For too long, we’ve accepted broken bones, bodies, and lives as a fair price for the lure of a speedy (solo) ride from A to B.
It’s a price that many of us are no longer willing to pay – or to have foisted upon us.Report Typo/Error
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