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opinion

The Globe and Mail

In the very heart of downtown Toronto on Boxing Day, two cars collided and one of them flipped onto the sidewalk, sending seven people and the driver to hospital. Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam tweeted that a first responder described the vehicle behaving like “a torpedo.” An eyewitness called it “a missile.”

As my colleague Oliver Moore wondered, quoting that witness, “How fast does an SUV have to be going to be ‘launched in the air’ and ‘turned on its side like a missile?’ ”

We’ll probably never know how fast that car was going, or what led to the crash, or what life-changing injuries the pedestrians might have suffered, because the story has vanished from the news cycle. Like most vehicular catastrophes, it’s shrugged off as part of the cost of worshipping at the temple of the car.

Sometimes one of the catastrophes breaks through the indifference, which was the case when 17-year-old Nadia Mozumder was struck and killed by a driver turning left in the city’s east end, or when Valdemar and Fatima Avila were killed in the city’s west end when their stopped car was struck by a driver allegedly travelling at a high speed.

In both cases, people in those neighbourhoods voiced their grief and frustration that they’d been complaining about speeding drivers for years, and nothing was done about it. They’d formed neighbourhood safety groups and written to local politicians and put those begging “slow down” signs on their lawns and nothing changed.

Is this the year we stop worshipping at the temple of the car? Is this the year the city gets serious about slowing down? There has been a little progress, with reductions of speed limits on some local roads to 30 km/h, but that progress – unlike the drivers themselves – is incredibly slow. Many other roads remain at 40 and 50 km/h, with drivers regularly breaking even those limits.

How regularly? Let’s look at this evidence: When Toronto installed new automated speed cameras, the city issued 227,322 tickets between July, 2020, and July, 2021. That’s 620 tickets a day. One driver was fined 27 times. Those are just fines, by the way – no demerit points are taken off a driver’s licence.

I sometimes feel like I’ve dodged 620 cars a day as I scamper to the grocery store across a busy road. Cars regularly blow the red light at my intersection, and the speed limit is treated with all the reverence of advice given by your great-aunt. A few weeks ago there was a seven-car crash at a nearby intersection, which I only found out about because some locals posted it on social media.

Every time I shake my fist in rage at a car speeding through our crosswalk, I want to pull aside the driver and ask: What exactly is the rush? Is there something burning in the oven at home? Are your pants on fire? Are you using that extra five minutes to solve an incurable disease, or are you just worried about missing the beginning of the game? Or is it simply because everyone else is doing it, and you’ll feel like a chump if you don’t participate in the death race as well? I wish I’d asked that question of the driver who hit my son walking in a crosswalk several years ago, but I was too busy being glad my kid was still alive.

Another confession: I no longer own a car, so my perspective has changed. I always walked and biked and took public transit a lot, but I was also part of the death race, and it seemed more normal from the driver’s seat. Once you’re outside it you see how the city has been engineered for the comfort, and above all the convenience, of the driver. “Four wheels good” has been the city’s unofficial motto for as long as I can remember.

It does not have to be this way. The city could decide to accelerate and strengthen its commitment to Vision Zero, with its explicit goal of zero pedestrian deaths or injuries. There have been small steps away from the kingdom of the car – more bike lanes are being made permanent, and new developments no longer require minimum parking allotments – but these steps fall far short of where the city needs to be.

For that, you have to look to Europe, where many cities are imposing 30 km/h rules across the board. A recent reduction in the speed limit in Brussels resulted not only in far fewer deaths and serious injuries but also did not account for longer trip times. Paris’s visionary Mayor Anne Hidalgo is pushing cars out of the centre of the capital, and replacing them with bike lanes and buses and places for flopping and lounging.

In my favourite city, Berlin, there’s a movement to ban private cars altogether in the core, with a petition supporting the autofrei movement gathering more than 50,000 signatures. If a second petition gets 170,000 signatures, it will be put to a public vote.

I’m not expecting downtown Toronto to go car-free anytime soon (although if a genie appeared and gave me a few wishes, that would be one of them). But the city’s streets can be re-engineered to prevent speeding, and speed limits reduced across the board. We could ban right turns on red lights, install more bike lanes, raise the price of parking. We could increase penalties for dangerous and distracted driving, as the Ontario NDP has recommended with its Protecting Vulnerable Road Users bill.

All of these things together would add to a safer, more pleasant city, whether you’re on four wheels or two legs.