Skip to main content

It hasn't been a good season to be a walker in Canada's largest city. The weather's been mild and welcoming, but the motorists – not so much.

Last week, a woman was killed as she attempted to cross the street at a crosswalk. An elderly man was killed by a streetcar a few days before that. On Labour Day weekend, three people were hit, one fatally, two seriously wounded. The number of pedestrians killed by vehicles in Toronto in 2014 now stands at 19; last year the number was 40, the highest it has been a decade.

Meanwhile, Vancouver has just reported its lowest rate of pedestrian fatalities in 80 years; only one person killed this year (the city has an official goal of zero fatalities per year). I'm a Torontonian born and bred, so I'm loath to acknowledge Vancouver's superiority in any way, but I'd be willing to put on a hair shirt – or perhaps Gore-Tex so I'll fit in – and find out what that city is doing right.

As it turns out, many things. For a start, they put their money where the mayhem is. "The city takes a lot of time and care to think through the movement of vehicles and how to minimize conflict with pedestrians, and it's really paying off," says Larry Frank, director of the Health and Community Design Lab at the University of British Columbia. "Vision, leadership, investment" is how he sums up Vancouver's strategy since its landmark 1997 Transit Plan, which sought to minimize the role of private cars and encourage walking, cycling and public transit.

"Vancouver's legacy is that it started with an aggressive vision in 1997, and it was followed by political will to carry through into real investment," Prof. Frank says. That investment includes pedestrian-friendly initiatives such as widening sidewalks, narrowing intersections, raising crosswalks and lengthening crossing times at traffic lights. Twelve per cent of Vancouverites walk to work, and why wouldn't they? They've got pretty scenery and reasonably low odds of ending up stuck to someone's bumper.

Another thing the city did, Prof. Frank notes, is to lower the speed limit in parts of town such as the Downtown Eastside, an area known for its high proportion of drug users and homeless people. Now the speed limit in that neighbourhood is 30 kilometres an hour.

Such a simple, beautiful solution. You'd think someone might suggest that for Toronto. Wait, someone already has – in fact, more than once, only to be drowned out by the deafening whining of the car lobby and its political mouthpieces. (I'll just add that I am not anti-car – I'm a driver, as well as a pedestrian and a cyclist.)

Ontario's chief coroner recommended that the speed limit on Toronto's residential streets should be lowered to 30 km/h and 40 km/h for busier roads. That recommendation was included in his report of the province's 95 pedestrian deaths in 2010, which found that almost 70 per cent happened on roads where the speed limit was 50 km/h. (Between 1988 and 2002, 2,089 pedestrians were killed in Ontario.)

Then Toronto's chief medical officer, David McKeown, made similar recommendations about lowering speed limits, based on evidence that such restrictions can save lives. His reasonable proposals were called "nuts" by Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who also suggested publicly that Dr. McKeown might like to find a new line of work. There are powerful political forces in this city that regard the feet as the work of the devil.

At least the city's chief planner, Jennifer Keesmaat, is pro-walking: A properly functioning city, she wrote recently, is one where "pedestrians are expected and they are treated as a priority."

She has forcefully advocated for parents to send their kids to school by foot or bike. Many parents, though, are afraid of careless drivers. My own kids walk to school, crossing a busy downtown street at a crosswalk, and I have screamed at drivers speeding through that crosswalk so often that my offspring now refer to me as "the crazy lady." When Toronto police held a pedestrian-safety awareness day to mark the beginning of the school year, drivers sped past going far beyond the limit, even as officers watched. How fast do they go when the uniforms aren't there?

The idea of lowering speed limits is, for the moment, a political non-starter. In the Death Race 2014 of Toronto's streets, it's four wheels good, two legs bad, and don't even think about challenging it.