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A century ago, during the Roaring Twenties, the automobile established its dominance in our cities.

As car proliferated, pedestrian death surged. To cut the carnage, walkers were shunted to sidewalks and could only cross streets at specific intervals. Los Angeles in 1923 was among the first to outlaw jaywalking – in the lingo of the day, a “jay” was a half-witted rube. “Don’t jay walk” blared one poster of the era, depicting a hapless walker hit by an angry driver, a nearby cop shouting at the pedestrian. According to the 2020 book Slow Cities, automakers helped launch “a massive shaming campaign [that] prompted a radical shift in public attitudes to the use of streets.”

Everyone knows how the story turned out. Streets came to be understood as things whose purpose was to speed traffic. Streets belonged to cars; people were just interlopers, like hairs clogging a drain.

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The first cracks in the car’s dominance emerged a half-century ago when public opposition prevented proposed freeways from ripping through downtown Vancouver and the heart of Toronto. In the late 1990s, Sweden formulated a bolder idea: Vision Zero. Its goal was to design cities so that zero pedestrians would ever be killed by a car. It asserted that when cars killed pedestrians, it wasn’t because pedestrians were “jays.”

Vision Zero has been spreading, including to unlikely places such as Calgary and Edmonton – cities with traditional, car-centric layouts.

In Calgary, as of May 31, the speed limit on most neighbourhood streets was reduced to 40 kilometres an hour from 50 km/h. Edmonton is making the same change in August; big downtown streets such as Jasper Avenue are included.

The rationale is simple: Speed kills. If a car moving at 50 km/h hits a pedestrian, the likely result is death. But if the car is going 30 km/h, the pedestrian probably survives. Research cited by the City of Calgary suggests a 1-per-cent reduction in average driving speed reduces fatal collisions by 4 per cent.

The move to 40 km/h is only a half-step. The goal of Vision Zero in neighbourhoods is a limit of 30. And on arterial roads, where speeds are higher, and more deaths occur, a limit of 50 km/h is advised as much safer than the usual 60 or 70.

In Canada, Toronto may have made the most progress so far. City council in 2019 approved a plan to cut civic speed limits. Known as “Vision Zero 2.0,” it’s a second go at a first attempt that came up short. The city, in take two, cut speeds on numerous arterial streets but still chose a cautious street-by-street approach, rather making citywide changes. Toronto has since kept making reliable progress. Among the next moves is a plan to cut neighbourhood speed limits in much of Scarborough to 30 km/h from 40.

Pedestrian and cyclist deaths in Canada are stubbornly high. From 2000 through 2004, according to Transport Canada, cars killed an average of 364 pedestrians a year and 53 cyclists. From 2014 through 2018 – the most recent national numbers – cars killed 318 pedestrians annually, and 45 cyclists.

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The data from Toronto show encouraging trends – and gathering data is a signal of the importance of achieving a goal, rather than just tallying fatalities long after the fact, or treating pedestrians and cyclist deaths as just a fact of life. In 2020, road deaths in Toronto plunged – in part because of the pandemic and lighter traffic. This year’s figures are even lower. As of mid-May, there have been just five pedestrian traffic fatalities and zero cyclists. Serious injuries are also down sharply.

Slowing cars – and saving lives – takes more than lower speed limits. The design of streets is important, such as narrower driving lanes, wider sidewalks, pop-out curbs at corners for pedestrians and cycling lanes. Other strategies include automated speed cameras, investment in transit and limiting cars in some areas, such as school zones in the morning and afternoon.

This is not utopian fantasy. Vision Zero became reality in two Scandinavian capital cities in 2019, with Oslo and Helsinki recording zero pedestrian deaths. Back in the 1990s, Helsinki was suffering about 25 pedestrians deaths a year.

A century ago, road safety was about making sure people knew their place, and stayed out of the way of cars – the real owners of the road. That paradigm is finally being reworked. The pace of change is measured in the dwindling number of lives lost.

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