Thoughts on recent pedestrian fatalities in Toronto

A recent media firestorm has erupted over the number of pedestrian fatalities in Toronto in 2010, a number that has now reached fourteen. According to the Globe and Mail, more than 2000 pedestrians are harmed (killed or injured) in traffic accidents in Toronto each year. While the regular numbers as well as the current rash of fatalities is disconcerting, it prompts some questions. Is this just a coincidental rash of fatalities? Is there anything that can be done to prevent these incidents? Is stricter enforcement of existing rules the answer? Are the recent deaths a symptom of a growing societal problem?

In my opinion, while all unfortunate, this large number of fatalities is not occurring because something has changed since 2010 began. As this Toronto Star graphic shows, the City proper has had 13% of 2009’s fatalities in 3 weeks. (Three weeks is 6% of a year). Above normal yes, but nothing overly alarming. What does seem to be cause for concern is the numbers in York, Durham and Peel Regions: 33%, 29%, and 30% of last year’s totals, respectively. I don’t have the data to know when the fatalities occurred last year– but it may be that they were clumped into a few weeks  at that time as well.

When compared to the rest of the country, the City proper also does not compare too badly:

  • Vancouver: 1.71 deaths per 100 000
  • Ottawa (’08): 1.23
  • Montreal: 1.17
  • Toronto: 1.16
  • Calgary: 0.81

It is not clear whether the statistics include metropolitan areas or not, but given the very low “GTA rate”  of 0.91 per 100 000 it is easy to speculate that other rates are focused on city proper. By the way, it is not surprising to see Calgary at the bottom of this list, given its suburban like development across most of the city, however I am a bit surprised to see Vancouver high up there. I will discuss this later.

All these numbers being thrown around takes the reality out of it in a way. Every pedestrian fatality is one that shouldn’t have happened, and often easily preventable. And as many have said, it relies on humans making the right choice at the right time. So is there something about our culture or how we use the roads that must change? In my mind I imagine this as the pressures of growing urbanism, the type of city-living that has been encouraged and many people now what, up against a half-century of planning for efficient automobile movement with pedestrian movement generally an afterthought.

Some may wonder why the rate of pedestrian fatalities is lower in suburban locales. While I don’t have anything but my own experience and common sense to back me up, my initial thoughts are that a) pedestrianism doesn’t exist in these locations, save for a few old “main streets”, and b) those that do walk in these areas are walking on separated paths or in parks. It is conceivable that in some of the cases of fatalities in the suburbs in this recent surge occurred simply because the driver never sees any pedestrians crossing, so he has simply learned to not waste his time looking for them. Drivers are creatures of habit, just like humans (believe it or not) and those that drive the same route every day learn where they can push the limits and where they really have to pay attention. That’s why you’ll often exit your neighbourhood without even thinking about where you are going or where you need to stop at a stop sign– you just know.

There is also inherent risk involved with crossing an intersection six or eight lanes wide. Think of how many times you are vulnerable as a pedestrian to the mistakes of drivers! This reminds me of something my parents used to say when I was younger and they were worried about how safe a driving trip may be. They would question its safety, I would object, saying “I’ll be fine, I’m a good driver!” and they would respond “..it’s not you we’re worried about– we’re worried about the other drivers!” What this means is pedestrians always have to be aware when they are crossing a street. This is not to lay the blame at pedestrians, in fact more times than not they are likely following the rules. This is to say that drivers will be drivers– there will always be bad ones out there. You have to look out for yourself, because face it, you vs. big metal box on wheels– you lose every time.

I said I was going to come back to Vancouver. I lived there for four months while interning at the federal government last summer. One of the things that struck me about the road culture there is the pedestrian-car interaction. On many major streets, such as Broadway through Kitsilano, there are zebra crossings with white a black pedestrian signs indicating their existence, but nothing else. I had to drive a number of times for my work, and I learned really quickly the rules unique to the region. And that is, if a driver sees a pedestrian waiting on the curb to cross at the crosswalk, the driver is compelled to stop to let the pedestrian cross! This seems to have a limit of four-lane roads or less, but stopping four lanes of traffic by way of observing that there is a pedestrian waiting to cross seems a foreign concept to a Torontonian. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about from Google StreetView:
View Larger Map

And, another example on the highway-like Granville Street Bridge, on an onramp(!):
View Larger Map

Here too, one would be expected to stop when a pedestrian is seen waiting to cross. This is why I was surprised to see that Vancouver was near or at the top of the list of major Canadian cities. I don’t know if 2009 was an extraordinary year, but it seems to me that crossings like this would do a lot to garner respect and communication between motorists and pedestrians.

I don’t know what the secret is to solving this crisis, but I do know that healthier, friendlier, and livlier cities result from a successful pedestrian environment, and the only place to start is to make it safe.

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    • Thomas
    • January 27th, 2010

    Another thing that might lower the number of pedestrian fatalities is that pedestrians have the right of way in Calgary. And as a pedestrian and driver in Calgary I think we generally do well when it comes to stopping for pedestrians at uncontrolled crossings.

    The only other city I’m really familiar with as a pedestrian and driver is Vancouver and I wasn’t particularly impressed by how people stopped for pedestrians at uncontrolled crossings. I also wasn’t impressed by the number of signal lights that seemed to be present only for the benefit of pedestrians, which to me indicates a lack of respect for pedestrians.

    I’m not entirely sure if this has any significance at all, you’re musings on Calgary’s urban form and lack of pedestrianism is just as convincing. But we shouldn’t discount culture.

  1. i like your writing style, very easy to understand. i will look foward your next post, keep it up.

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