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Pedestrian deaths won’t end as long as Toronto panders to cars and drivers

Brian Doucet is an associate professor in the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo

More than one pedestrian a week has been killed on Toronto's streets this year. Toronto's leaders have responded to this crisis with pathetic and counterproductive ideas that placate drivers and their precious road spaces.

John Tory described the recent spate of pedestrian deaths as a "crisis." Yet, there is something tragically ironic about the mayor asking city staff to look into "additional measures" to enhance pedestrian road safety the day after he rejected his city staff's recommendation to redesign Yonge Street in North York in order to make it safer for people to walk across the street.

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And the response by local councillor Jim Karygiannis after Duncan Xu was killed crossing the street has been to close off the pathway he used to get to that street. Any redesign of the road he was killed on is apparently too costly, time-consuming or disruptive to drivers. But erecting a fence to cut off a well-used pedestrian path can be done literally overnight.

Toronto's civic leaders are woefully ignorant of other Canadian cities (Vancouver, Montreal, Calgary) and wider international trends that are prioritizing walking, cycling and transit. They are also out of touch with the growing number of young people who are rejecting auto-oriented lifestyles in favour of walking, cycling or transit. But perhaps they take their cue from most Torontonians, who see each passing headline as part of the "cost" of driving from A to B.

It is a well-worn trope to say that the Europeans figured this stuff out long ago, but I've seen radical shifts in priorities succeed in the Netherlands.

In 1971, 3,300 people were killed in traffic accidents in the Netherlands, more than 400 of whom were children. This galvanized many organizations, the largest of which was called "Stop the Child Murder" (Stop de Kindermoord).

Whereas here, the weekly deaths on our roads have led to no outpouring of public anger, in Holland, mass protests and rallies were held. This pressure forced politicians to take radical steps, producing a remarkable transformation that reshaped urban space from being car-oriented to being focused on walking, cycling and transit.

To use a popular Toronto phrase, the Dutch have been waging a "war on the car" for the better part of 50 years. Downtowns became pedestrianized, road-space was reduced and cycling infrastructure constantly improved. In the Netherlands, 27 per cent of all trips are made by bike, by far the highest figure in the world.

There's no sugar-coating it: We can only make our streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists when road space is taken away from cars. The cycling infrastructure that Mr. Tory would like to see in North York is designed not to upset, or slow down drivers. Transformative infrastructure disrupts the dominance of the car while enabling people to safely switch from driving their cars to using bikes, transit or walking.

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If you are a determined road driver, you might be reading this and shaking your head while imagining a hellscape of congested roads, 20-kilometre-an-hour speed limits and empty bike lanes. But consider this: Today, the Netherlands is also ranked as the best place for drivers in the world. The reason: Drivers have alternatives and don't need to use the car for every journey.

When cars slow down, not only are streets safer, but they become more enjoyable places to be. When good cycling infrastructure is present, people stop being "cyclists" and instead are just normal people going about ordinary, mundane activities. We need to stop thinking that bike lanes are only for "cyclists" and better sidewalks or more crossings are only for "pedestrians." They are for everyone and they give people choices as to how they get around.

If we think that the current situation in Toronto and elsewhere is acceptable (while Toronto gets the headlines, road safety is an issue right across Canada), then there is nothing wrong with simply repaving Yonge Street with six lanes, closing off pedestrian walkways or continuing to place blame on pedestrians for having the audacity to simply want to cross poorly designed roads.

Political leaders clearly think that no transformative solutions are necessary. This is worth remembering with local elections in Ontario later this year. So the movement for change will need to come from us. We must demand safer roads, slower speeds and better infrastructure for people who walk or use bicycles.

It took 400 children dying in one year on the streets of the Netherlands to galvanize people to demand transformative change. The reaction to these tragic deaths was a movement to radically reorient cities away from cars, which has created some of the most liveable and pleasing urban spaces anywhere in the world. The question for Canadians is: How many more deaths will it take to create that kind of movement here?

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