Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
Every Toronto pedestrian knows The Dart. Since the early days of COVID, when two people pass from opposite directions on a sidewalk, whichever one is closer to the road will usually dart into it, so as to remain at a distance from the other. So concerned are Torontonians about safety that the norm is to step into oncoming traffic, rather than risk a second’s outdoor mingling of aerosolized virus particles.
The Dart is by now a ritual so ingrained I can’t imagine anyone else is thinking about it. I, however, am obsessed. For a city prepared to make tremendous sacrifices to avoid COVID-related death and illness, there’s remarkably little concern about the dangers from drivers.
A car-centric etiquette pervades Toronto, a form of politeness where the people who count are the drivers and passengers, and where people walking down the street are mere obstacles. It’s a city where portable washrooms park in bike lanes, where minor snowfall renders sidewalks ice sheets for a season, and where the normal practice for deliveries, business and personal, involves a truck rendering sidewalks and bike lanes (if applicable) unusable for however long it takes.
Pedestrian accessibility is grim even for the able-bodied. Anyone relying on a mobility device, or otherwise incapable of turning a walk to work into a trip up curbside Everest, is fully out of luck. And with self-driving Teslas joining the mix, it’ll only get worse. As writer Shawn Micallef quipped, “Ah good, Toronto’s streets will be more like Twitter now.”
Exhibit A: On my normal-width street, cars stopping in front of a house will do so halfway on the sidewalk, making it easier for cars to pass by. How gracious for their fellow drivers, and yet how inconsiderate toward the person trying to manoeuvre a stroller with two small children.
Exhibit B: I’ll be waiting to cross the street, see that I have the light, do a quick glance (because you never know) and start confidently entering the intersection, only to notice that another pedestrian has done the go-ahead, after-you sir/ma’am gesture to a turning vehicle. The driver of course accepts the invitation without me noticing until suddenly I realize I’m on the cusp of being run over.
Exhibit C: This week, on garbage day, my young children and others on our street were almost struck by an SUV when the woman behind the wheel – only doing what the drivers in front of her had just done – drove partly on the sidewalk to get around the waste-disposal truck standing between her and wherever she was headed. This was far from the first time I’ve seen this happen. You don’t even have to be crossing a road to be at risk of being mowed down.
This is not Toronto-bashing. Every city has its drawbacks. New York, my hometown, piles its garbage high on the sidewalk in oozing plastic bags, making it so that even the poshest locales stink in summer and have a vermin situation. Just as I am not prepared to dismiss New York as a failed city on account of the rats charging down Park Avenue, my enthusiasm for Toronto persists, despite the near-death experience at every crosswalk.
It’s reassuring to see Toronto politicians bringing up road safety and “Vision Zero,” and I hope they mean business. I have however lived here long enough to know that tackling an issue often means forming a committee to discuss possibly one day giving it some thought.
The real change needed would be a city where you didn’t need a car to get around, which remains a fantasy. The tendency of the TTC to cease operations over broad areas for months on end, and to post indecipherable signs about diversions, encourages everyone who can afford it to eventually relent and get a car.
But with relatively small tweaks, such as lower speed limits, speed bumps, getting rid of right on red, and, more to the point, actual enforcement of existing rules, lives could be saved, and injuries prevented. Why, in a city that managed to mask up for three years, does this not happen?
The biggest obstacle is resignation. Torontonians treat being mowed over by a vehicle as a natural disaster about which nothing could possibly be done. On Monday, a 73-year-old woman was struck and killed by a vehicle while crossing a downtown intersection; on Tuesday, another pedestrian met the same fate in Mississauga. Torontonians have come to treat such incidents as an immovable fact of life, shrugging at (or unaware of) the ability of other large cities to improve matters. Paris has car bans, but they’re French, and everyone knows the French sit in cafés all day discussing existentialism. Sure, Manhattan managed to pedestrianize large stretches of Broadway, but that’s because New York is a quaint fishing village that has yet to introduce the modern automobile.
But there are also class politics, which cut in different directions. The simple one: Car owners are the caste of people with the money to own or lease cars, and to pay for car insurance, maintenance and parking. Bluntly put, if you’re a pedestrian, you’re a peasant. And if the rich run over members of the peasantry here and there, maybe they’re not too concerned about it.
This co-exists with a populist insistence – in Toronto and elsewhere – that drivers are regular folks with jobs, commuting in from relatively affordable suburbs, while pedestrians and cyclists are wealthy layabouts. The effete city folk who think daily life in North America should resemble what they saw on European study abroad, versus hardscrabble Canadians who require cars the size of tanks. It’s not for nothing that a certain recent populist movement rallied around the identity of “truckers.”
There’s a partial truth to these stereotypes. I am a carless peasant, as well as a work-from-home urbanite who’d love nothing more than to see Avenue Road pedestrianized, with little cheese shops replacing the lanes. Maybe I’m insufferable. But I’d rather not be killed.