2019 was not the year Toronto took pedestrian deaths seriously (and 2020 won’t be, either)

OPINION: There will be roughly as many pedestrian road deaths in Toronto this year as there will be gun deaths, but little is being done about the former
By John Michael McGrath - Published on Dec 17, 2019
On Dec. 16, the number of Toronto pedestrians killed this year on the city’s streets reached 39. (iStock.com/Blacqbook)

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On the 350th day of the year, Toronto marked the 39th pedestrian to die after being struck by a car this year, meaning the city is averaging just under one such death every nine days. And the booziest part of 2019 — with its associated DUIs — is still ahead of us, so don’t bet against the city getting to 40, or 41, people killed by drivers this year.

It’s striking that, once again, the number of pedestrian fatalities on the road is roughly equivalent to the number of people dying in this city from gunfire (current 2019 count: 41). But while the latter consumes endless news cycles and tens of millions of dollars in hastily-approved funding, the former is an afterthought. Dead is dead, but 2019 hammered home in some unpleasant ways that if you’re a pedestrian in this city (or any other kind of vulnerable road user) the city simply does not care if you live or die.

Start with the revelation — suspected earlier, but confessed last month — that Toronto Police cut in half the number of traffic charges they filed in the middle of the Rob Ford years at Toronto City Hall, when collision numbers started their rapid climb. The timing shouldn’t be overlooked here: Toronto had a specialized team for enforcing traffic safety from 2003 to 2012, but it disappeared early in Toronto city council’s decade-long obsession with keeping property tax increases below the level of inflation. Police didn’t even face the worst of council’s austerity measures, but, when confronted with the slightest spending restraint, they chose to jettison pedestrian safety.

Hey, lower taxes and fewer drivers irate about getting speeding tickets — who could complain? Shame about all the dead bodies.

But fear not, pedestrians, because now the city is going to get serious about pedestrian safety. As part of a new initiative under the Vision Zero Road Safety Plan to reduce bipedal mortality, the city is going to install 50 photo-radar cameras to catch speeders in specific areas of concern. While they’re targeted around schools, some perspective is needed: we’re talking about 50 cameras in a city where the public school board alone has nearly 600 schools and the Catholic board has another 200. And just in case even this paltry effort posed too much danger to motorists, the province has imposed a mandatory 90-day “public education” period so that drivers get plenty of warning before anyone tries anything as unthinkable as actually enforcing the law.

This isn’t a plan to punish law-breaking. It’s a plan to move the law-breaking somewhere else, where it might be slightly less likely to kill some schoolchildren. And this is likely the best we’re going to get for now, because neither Toronto city council nor the province think that pedestrian lives matter.

An actual plan to eliminate pedestrian deaths — making the zero in Vision Zero mean something — would certainly include photo radar (automated speed enforcement) but would go so much further that it’s unthinkable under the current city and provincial governments. Regulations at nearly every level of government assume that the purpose of road engineering is the fast, unimpeded flow of traffic, but that’s the problem: an unimpeded car is a deadly weapon. We need to change the design of streets themselves to slow down traffic and make drivers more attentive.

There are plenty of ways to do this, and many of them aren’t even novel. But the most effective methods all do some combination of slowing down traffic and preserving safe space for pedestrians — that is, taking space away from cars. In Toronto, even the most modest attempts to take space away from drivers are met with a firestorm of criticism and demands for compensation. The King Street Transit Pilot, which changed traffic rules along the Toronto Transit Commission’s busiest surface route to prioritize streetcars over automobiles and has now mercifully been made permanent, led to years of complaining from drivers and a handful of angry restauranteurs asserting without evidence that changes to parking rules were destroying their businesses.

But because this is Toronto, where no motorist’s grievance can be ignored, the Toronto Parking Authority will now spend $1.8 million to replace up to 25 parking spaces that were supposedly lost when that part of the street was returned to public use for the King streetcar pilot. Since the original cost of the pilot was $1.5 million, we’re arguably going to end up spending more attempting to placate car owners than we did actually improving transit service.

And King Street isn’t some six-lane arterial serving strip malls and office parks; it’s a street that has existed in Toronto for much longer than the automobile. It should have been the easiest place in the city to chip away at automotive supremacy, just a little, and it still wasn’t easy. Even if Toronto was serious about the problem of pedestrian deaths (we aren’t), we’d need to come to a consensus about major, physical changes to the suburban streets where people are dying most often (we haven’t), and then we’d need to agree to raise the taxes to fund those projects (we won’t.) Even the tax increase that Mayor John Tory has belatedly come to embrace will be a drop in the bucket compared to the city’s desperate housing and transit needs, leaving little for improving road design.

Get ready for 2020, and another year of entirely avoidable deaths on our streets.

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