If Toronto is waging war on cars, why are drivers the only ones racking up a body count?: Keenan
With seven pedestrians killed in the last few days, we must stop fixating on minutes of commute time lost by drivers and focus on saving lives. It’s not a war. It’s a rescue mission.
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The people who think moving more cars faster should be the city’s highest priority are fond of talking about the “war on the car” whenever cycling or walking or transit are brought up as viable means of travel. But if there’s a war going on, the cars are pretty much the only ones inflicting any casualties. You never hear about a car driver or passenger killed after their vehicle collided with a pedestrian. Because it is the cars, and virtually only the cars, racking up the body count.
And that count keeps rising: two more pedestrians killed after being hit by cars Wednesday night and Thursday morning. That makes seven in the past eight days, including four in one day leading into Sept. 29.
According to the count of the Star’s transportation reporter Ben Spurr, that makes 32 pedestrians and two cyclists killed in traffic so far this year. And that’s not even counting the auto drivers and passengers also killed in collisions.
This is not a war. If anything it’s more akin to a slaughter. Measures to make streets safer by changing speed limits, changing road design, introducing bike lanes and so on are not ways of waging war. They are proposals that seek to provide peace. To end the deaths and injuries. To preserve life.
Whenever these things happen, all kinds of people put their hands up to tell us what the real problem is. If everyone would just obey traffic signals... If everyone would just wear bright clothing… If everyone would cross at the lights instead of mid-block… If everyone would just drive slower… If everyone would just come to a complete stop at stop signs… If everyone would just wear a helmet…
Recently I encountered a tiny post on Tumblr by someone using the name squareallworthy that addresses such arguments perfectly: “If your solution to problems relies on ‘If everyone would just…’ then you do not have a solution. Everyone is not going to just. At no time in history has everyone just, and they’re not going to start now.”
This applies to all sorts of things, but it definitely applies to traffic safety. If you want people’s behaviour to change, you have to do something to change it. Something more than crossing your fingers and making a wish, or reminding them of what’s good for them. People break the rules if they can, and do what’s easy even if they know the hard thing might be safer. They make human errors. That’s why we call them human.
People aren’t going to magically decide to wear blinking lights on their winter boots or drive five km under the limit all the time. Not even if you tell them to do so in the press, again and again. They just aren’t. We have all learned to use the roads in a certain way. We are creatures of habit, and the design of those roads encourages our habits.
Changing laws is one thing we can do. Changing the enforcement of laws is another, though you very quickly run into the finite police resources if you try to ticket everyone going 1 km per hour over the speed limit, or every bicycle that does a rolling stop at an empty four-way intersection.
Or we can change the design of the roads.
Protected bike lanes, for instance, separate cyclists from cars and trucks. They make everyone safer. And yet here we have the Bloor Bike Lane pilot project coming up for review, and all anyone seems interested in talking about is whether the loss of street parking is worthwhile, or whether the effect on car travel times amounts to a few minutes delay or not.
More crosswalks and stoplights make crossing the road safer for pedestrians. Yet when residents asked for a crosswalk at Warden Ave. and Continental in February, according to my colleagues at the Scarborough Mirror, they were told by city staff that it “didn’t meet the warrants.” A woman and her 5-year-old daughter were run down and killed there crossing the road last week.
There was a similar situation at Cosburn and Cedarvale, CBC reported on Thursday. Residents had asked for a new traffic signal there, because the crosswalk that had been installed was ineffective and dangerous. Local councillor Janet Davis argued “for years” for a stoplight there, but was told by city staff that the request “was not justified.” A woman was struck and killed there in December. Now the city will finally install the stoplight.
Protected bike lanes, mid-block crossings and stoplights, narrower lanes and other design changes, wrote Janet Sadik-Khan, the former New York City Transportation commissioner, “provide cues for motorists to slow down and stay in the lane.” Introducing these kinds of changes to New York City roads, she reports in her book Street Fight, led to a 34 per cent drop in traffic fatalities at the places where they were introduced and a fourfold increase in cycling at the same time.
And these are the types of changes anticipated in the city’s Vision Zero plan. There may not be enough of them in that plan, but those are the types that are anticipated. But because of its $80.3 million cost, we are currently planning to roll the plan out over five years. This, in a city where it is alleged we have a “war on the car,” in which we have spent millions to speed up road construction on highways and millions more on various initiatives to get car traffic moving faster.
The city will be looking at a report on implementing the five-year road safety plan two years from now, in a report coming to works committee in November. That would be a start.
But from speed bumps to bike lanes to speed limits, it’s time we stopped fixating on minutes of commute time lost by drivers and started focusing on trying to save lives. It’s not a war anyone’s talking about. It’s a rescue mission. We should choose to accept it.
Edward Keenan writes on city issues firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow: @thekeenanwire