Pedestrians crossing mid-block in Toronto: the definitive guide

Last summer, I wrote an article in NOW magazine about pedestrians crossing in the middle of a block, noting that it is in fact legal to do so, so that there is no crime of “jaywalking” in Toronto.

Because of the necessity of writing engaging journalism, I didn’t go into all the legal details. And the message still hasn’t been received in a lot of quarters. Last week, the Toronto Star wrote an article talking about “jaywalkers” who “cross illegally” on Front St. in front of Union Station. In fact, “jaywalking” is a misnomer and it is perfectly legal for them to cross there (I wrote a letter to the Star but it hasn’t been published as of this date).

So here, in definitive form, is the law as it relates to pedestrians crossing mid-block in Toronto. This analysis is based on reading the relevant acts and laws along with the definitive The Annotated Ontario Highway Traffic Act, by Murray Segal, and on consultations with pedestrian activists and a police officer from the Toronto Police Service — Traffic Services division.

I am hoping that this post will become the definitive reference on this issue, and will help clear up the misconceptions around pedestrians crossing the street mid-block.

The Lowdown

It is legal for pedestrians to cross the street mid-block anywhere in Toronto as long as:

a) they are not adjacent to a marked pedestrian crossing, and

b) they yield to traffic.

This legal situation is a combination of Ontario law, through the Highway Traffic Act, and City of Toronto by-laws.

The Ontario Highway Traffic Act

The Ontario Highway Traffic Act regulates all behaviour on Ontario roads. If the Act does not specifically prohibit an activity, then that activity is not governed by the Act and is therefore legal.

The Act says nothing, for or against, about pedestrians crossing roads at “uncontrolled locations,” that is, locations without traffic control (i.e. without traffic lights, stop signs, or a crosswalk). That means that it is legal for pedestrians to cross at uncontrolled locations (e.g. mid-block) in Ontario.

Such crossings are therefore governed by the common law provision to “exercise due care.” Basically, that means exercising common sense on both sides — cars have to avoid hitting pedestrians, pedestrians have to avoid putting themselves in danger.

The situation was made more explicit in case law (Segal, 313):

In the absence of statutory provisions or by-law a pedestrian is not confined to a street crossing or intersection, and is entitled to cross at any point, although greater care may then be required of him or her at crossing.

But, because the stakes in a car-pedestrian collision are not even (the pedestrian will suffer far more) , the Act goes a step further. Section 193 (1) states:

When loss or damage is sustained by any person by reason of a motor vehicle on a highway, the onus of proof that the loss or damage did not arise through the negligence or improper conduct of the owner, driver, lessee or operator of the motor vehicle is upon the owner, driver, lessee or operator of the motor vehicle. (note — highway here means any road).

So, if a driver hits a pedestrian, it’s up to the driver to prove they weren’t doing anything wrong (note – I don’t have the expertise to be able to say if this provision is in practice as strong as the Netherland’s assumption of driver liability in collisions with pedestrians, which I referred to in a recent article. A reader wrote in to suggest that the Ontario provision is in fact similar in strength, which may possibly be the case. But another complication is the addition of more restrictive municipal by-laws, noted below. Also, the case law over the years would affect the application of this provision — my sense from a quick survey when I wrote the NOW article last year was that the driver is almost always assigned some liability, but the pedestrian may be assigned some liability too if they were not exercising due care).

There is only one restriction in the Highway Traffic Act that affects pedestrians crossing in uncontrolled locations. In Section 144, which governs behaviour at traffic control signals and pedestrian control signals, sub-section (22) states:

Where portions of a roadway are marked for pedestrian use, no pedestrian shall cross the roadway except within a portion so marked.

There is no definition of what “Where” means, exactly, but since section 144 only deals with behaviour at signals themselves, this sub-section refers to the area immediately adjacent to the signals and marked crossing. It basically means that if a pedestrian is at or approaching a marked crossing, they have to cross within the lines — they can’t cross beside the lines or step outside them. It does not apply to an extended section of the street.

While the provincial laws are very permissive, however, municipalities have the ability to create by-laws governing pedestrian crossings at uncontrolled locations, as long as they don’t contradict the provincial act (which they don’t because the provincial act says nothing on the issue).

City of Toronto By-laws

Perhaps because of the much greater interaction between pedestrians and motor vehicles in the city, the various municipalities that formed Metropolitan Toronto before amalgamation all had bylaws that added an extra level of regulation regarding pedestrians crossing at uncontrolled locations. These bylaws stated, in one way or another, that pedestrians crossing at uncontrolled locations should not interfere with traffic or should yield to traffic. For example, Metropolitan Toronto bylaw 32-92, Section 10, states:

Except where the traffic control signals are in operation or where traffic is being controlled by a police officer, a pedestrian crossing a highway at a place other than a pedestrian crossover shall yield the right-of-way to all vehicles and streetcars upon the roadway, but nothing in the section shall relieve the driver of a vehicle or streetcar from the obligation of taking all due care to avoid an accident.

The six local municipalities had similar laws.

In effect, pedestrians have to wait for a safe opportunity before they cross mid-block.

If you try to cross mid-block and get hit by a car that is obeying the speed limit and other laws, you were breaking the bylaw. Also, you’re pretty clearly breaking the bylaw if a car that is obeying the speed limit has to slow down suddenly or stop in order not to hit you. But the fear of suffering injury is probably a much greater deterrent to behaving in this way than the fear of a fine. The vast majority of pedestrians crossing mid-block in Toronto, who by natural instinct wait until there is a safe opportunity to cross, comply with the bylaws.

(I’m pretty sure that if a car chooses to stop to let you cross while you are waiting at the side of the road, as drivers sometimes do in Toronto, then your crossing is perfectly legal. The bylaw only applies if the pedestrian forces a change of behaviour on a vehicle in order to avoid a collision).

(Note also that those pedestrians who do get hit by a vehicle mid-block in Toronto were not necessarily breaking the bylaw — speeding is common on Toronto streets, and the higher the vehicle speed, the more severe the injuries. If a car is speeding, a pedestrian’s reasonable judgement about a safe opportunity to cross could get thrown off).

These bylaws have not yet been amalgamated, which means that the laws of the former municipalities are still in effect on the streets they controlled. This leads to some funny anomalies. For example, the fine for breaking the above Metro bylaw, which applies on the arterial roads that Metro controlled, is $8.75, which no police officer is likely to bother to enforce. But the fines for the local municipalities were quite a bit higher ($90), so in theory you could be fined more for interfering with traffic on a residential street than on a major arterial.

There are also certain expressways where pedestrians are prohibited from crossing anywhere by bylaw, but these are common sense: the Don Valley Parkway, the Gardiner, and Black Creek Drive from Jane to Weston road. These simply apply to the city-owned parts of expressways that are otherwise covered by the Ontario Highway Traffic Act, which includes a blanket prohibition of pedestrians walking on or crossing limited-access provincial expressways.

photo by Adam Krawesky

30 comments

  1. So you only break the law and get a fine if you are hit and the driver was paying attention and driving the speed limit?

  2. “(I’m pretty sure that if a car chooses to stop to let you cross while you are waiting at the side of the road, as drivers sometimes do in Toronto, then your crossing is perfectly legal. The bylaw only applies if the pedestrian forces a change of behaviour on a vehicle in order to avoid a collision).”

    Isn’t a car “choosing” to stop for a pedestrian and a pedestrian “forcing” a car to stop, the same thing? And anyway, I think that if driver stopping in the middle of a road for any reason other than stopping for a traffic light, is extremely dangerous. I’ve almost gotten into a few accidents because some drivers felt it was right to stop dead in the middle of a street (as cars were moving around her) on a green light to let someone turn in from a plaza.

  3. This wouldn’t be an issue if our public space was divided the following way: 33% Pedestrians, 33% bicycles, 33% transit, 1% cars. :P

  4. Carlos, I’d be overjoyed if space was just divided correctly per person. If so, drivers might have just enough room for Smart Cars, cyclists would get that one-meter zone on the books, pedestrians would get sidewalks four times as wide, and we’d have transit the envy of the world.

    It always comes down to the car taking more than its share of roadspace, road fatalities, pollution, foreign oil-wars…

  5. Wow I just re-read my comment parts of it make no sense. Take out that “if” and change that to “drivers”. Ooops.

  6. Chris > the key part of that quote is “while you are waiting at the side of the road” – the driver *could* have driven through without hitting you. If they choose to stop, they’ve voluntarily yielded and I think you’re clear. It’s up to the driver to do so in safe circumstances. I’ve seen it happen plenty of times completely safely.

    Scott > “you’re pretty clearly breaking the bylaw if a car that is obeying the speed limit has to slow down suddenly or stop in order not to hit you.” So no, it’s not just if you’re hit.

    In practice, I doubt the police would issue a ticket if you’re hit by a car, on the assumption that you’ve already got the message from the accident itself. The police I’ve talked to have also said they probably wouldn’t issue a ticket if there was no collision unless a pedestrian had been obviously reckless and caused real danger to themselves or others. But I’d be interested to see if any of our readers have personal experiences on this topic.

  7. Dylan, a couple of questions:

    1. Did your excellent analysis include a definition of what you stated as “adjacent to a marked pedestrian crossing”? Is a pedestrian required to use a marked pedestrian crossing that is one meter away? Ten meters? Half a block? Within sight?

    2. What infraction is it that police ticket pedestrians for when they conduct one of their pedestrian safety “blitzes”?

    3. How do cyclists figure in all this? Must they also obey the laws that apply to motorists? To pedestrians? Neither?

  8. Surprising to learn that it is legal to cross in the middle of the street when Toronto makes it illegal to take a photograph anywhere in the city, while standing on a public sidewalk. A permit (around $30 for one day) is required.(BY-LAW No. 442-2007)

    Do real estate agents really pay the fee, when they take snaps of houses for their ads?

  9. To respond to Diane’s #3 above, under the HTA a bicycle is legally considered a “vehicle”. The definition explicitly includes bicycles, in addition to “any vehicle propelled by any kind of power, including muscular power”. (So therefore, a skateboard is a vehicle?) If you are walking your bicycle, though, I would think it’s safe to say you become a pedestrian and the bicycle becomes equipment that you are carrying.

    Streetcars are excluded from the definition of a vehicle though, although there are some regulations that state that they also apply to streetcars.

  10. Thanks for this thorough research.

    What about when one is crossing at a “controlled” intersection? Is it actually a ticketable offence if you disobey the traffic lights?

    And, which signal is the important one? I have always treated the “don’t walk” symbol as merely a warning and thought of the red light as the only signal that actually counts. Some drivers seem to disagree, pointing at the “don’t walk” hand as if I should know I am commiting a flagrant violation.

  11. As a complete aside, a little known provision of the Ontario Highway Act (142.5, see http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/html/statutes/french/elaws_statutes_90h08_f.htm) allows for cyclists to extend their right arms to indicate a right turn, very logically. The bent left arm signal for a right turn is only to accomodate car drivers, who clearly cannot extend their right arm out the passenger side window. Cyclists should use this against the car hegemonic culture!

  12. Ah, these are good questions. I’ll try to answer both Diane’s and Andrew’s, as they relate to each other.

    Diane > #1 – The law does not specify any distance, and even those who know about it aren’t sure of the distance it affects. However, it definitely applies strictly the area around the signal and markings (because of its context in the section about signals). So it’s not applicable “within sight,” or half a block. Probably 5 meters, maybe 10 meters. I think the intention is to keep people within the lines at intersections (so they don’t get clipped by cars who aren’t expecting them, I presume). It is heavily disregarded, as pedestrians routinely walk in a diagonal across the lines to save time, and I think it is also rarely enforced. As far as I know, it has never been tested in court, which would be the normal way the distance in question would be refined.

    Diane #2 and Andrew – I think the police blitzes mostly target pedestrians crossing against a red light. I see peds do it sometimes in dangerous circumstances, forcing cars to slow down to avoid hitting them, which I think is a genuine problem.

    It’s definitely a ticketable offence to cross against a red at a controlled intersection – I didn’t want to get into that issue in my post, it’s already long enough. I’ve heard there are a few cities where they’ve changed that rule and allowed pedestrians to cross against a red if no cars are approaching (which is the way things work in practice, of course).

    In theory, the flashing hand legally means don’t start crossing, but police I’ve talked to say they have never heard of anyone being ticketed for that. It’s one of the reasons the city is considering switching to a flashing walking man, now that they are introducing countdown signals – to side-step the anomaly of a never-enforced law.

    I think Brent is right about cyclists. In some of the laws I looked at, “vehicles” were specifically defined to include streetcars, but that might have been just the municipal bylaws.

  13. “I think that if driver stopping in the middle of a road for any reason other than stopping for a traffic light, is extremely dangerous. I’ve almost gotten into a few accidents because some drivers felt it was right to stop dead in the middle of a street (as cars were moving around her) on a green light to let someone turn in….”

    While it may be irksome when someone ahead of you impedes the flow of traffic for whatever reason, if you have been taught how to drive correctly you should know that the responsibility is entirely yours to keep your vehicle at a safe distance and speed for any given circumstance. Oh and, letting other drivers in is a common courtesy elsewhere but almost unheard of in these parts. You have the wrong ‘tude, dude.

  14. I don’t know if this post was intended to be timely on purpose, but the Toronto police have just released the results of their week-long ped safety blitz:

    http://www.torontopolice.on.ca/newsreleases/pdfs/12961.pdf
    http://www.thestar.com/News/GTA/article/278263

    The week−long event resulted in 7,797 provincial offences tickets issued, a 15% increase over last year.

    Tickets were issued as follows:
    − 631 for improper left and right turns,
    − 6,782 to drivers for hazardous offences affecting pedestrians,
    − 596 to pedestrians for a variety of offences,
    − 153 to cyclists for a variety of offences,
    − 266 were issued under the Safe Streets Act,
    − an additional 1,310 parking tickets were issued directly related to interfering with the safe use of pedestrian crosswalks, crossovers, and vehicles blocking intersections.

    Wonder what the “variety of offences” for peds/cyclists entailed. Also note the heavy skew to motor vehicle offences (76% for moving vehicles; 90% including parking tickets)

  15. @Daemon: I have been taught to drive properly but I can guarantee you any driving instructor in Toronto would tell you that it’s extremely dangerous to all involved when someone stops dead in the middle of a road (when all the traffic is flowing around him or her) for whatever reason, most of all something as unnecessary as letting someone turn out of a plaza. While the legal liability is mine to not speed and stay a good distance away, it’s also the responbility of a driver to drive safely, considerately (I mean to traffic on the road, not to people waiting in a plaza) and not make random unpredictable moves for no good reason on the road that can throw other drivers off and cause accidents (psst this is the kind of stuff that you learn when you’re ‘taught correctly’).

    I think you misunderstood what I said. I’m all for driving courtesy and I always let someone in if I’m stopped at a red, or there’s room to let someone in if the light JUST turned green, but why would anyone screech to a halt in the middle of traffic on a green light to let someone out of a plaza? No car following or beside would expect that and it’s endangering the lives of everyone involved. Just like (when ‘taught properly’) one is instructed to not swerve or screech to a halt to avoid hitting something like a squirrel, the same applies here. Unpredictable and unjustified stoppage in the middle of streets are what can take human lives.

  16. Thanks for staying with this Dylan.

    One would also think that this still misunderstood pedestrian right provides a great basis for calling for responsible reductions in maximum urban motor-vehicle speed limits. Further it speaks to the need for zero tolerance in the enforcement of urban speeding infractions, as the offending vehicles arrive at a possible impact position sooner, than could easily be gauged by the street-crossing pedestrian.

    21st century urban pedestrian (sustainable mobility) education needs a much higher profile, starting with public school, eh?

    Still there will be those who will argue that by sharing such information, we are putting pedestrians at risk by encouraging mid-block crossings. And until we slow down the cars and trucks, they may have a point.

    -scunny-

  17. Your comments were understood, Chris. The point is you can only control YOUR vehicle. And you have to drive with that in mind. You can have opinions about other drivers but whether they are stoppping or swerving for a squirrel, cat, dog, child, elderly pedestrian who has slipped on ice or a sinkhole that has suddenly opened in the road or whatever the case may be – it is still your responsibility to not plow into them from behind no matter what you think of their driving. That is rule 1. Accidents result when drivers forget that and assume they have the divine right-of-way.

    ps. I yield for squirrels.

    pps. You could join the rest of us who’d rather walk, subway, bike, dogsled, etc. and avoid the road rage.

  18. Dylan: thanks for the clarifications.

    scunyun: Nicely put!

  19. One thing that irks me about being a pedestrian in Toronto is that pedestrians are very rarely given right of way at ramps, especially the fast ones. I move here from Ottawa where there where plenty of examples of yield-to-pedestrian signs on ramps and turning lanes. This is very useful when traffic flows are heavy and fast as you can end up waiting quite a while for a sufficient break in traffic. Having traffic yield for you makes it much more encouraging to be a pedestrian out in the suburbs where traffic is typically moving faster.

    It’s not like motorists loose that much time by stopping for the occasional pedestrian. I’ll be honest, I do a lot of driving but quite often I’ll stop and let a pedestrian go, especially if it’s dark, rainy or if traffic looks particularly impenetrable and I rarely have a problem catching up to the car in front without speeding.

    If the City are serious about becoming more pedestrian friendly, this is one initiative that’s easy to implement and very important, especially outside of the downtown core, but even around the Gardiner/Lakeshore.

    It is nice to see that the HTA basically reflects common sense and courtesy. As for how much weight the crossing hand has, I don’t the answer, but I do know that if it stays solid red when the light changes there may be an advanced green for someone and the penalty for stepping off the curb may be more than $90.

  20. i walk where i want to. I step in front of traffic. they have no other option but to stop or slow down. I do this especially in ‘pedestrian districts’ like campus areas and busy streets.

    i put cars in their place.

    harness the power of the pedestrian.

  21. “i walk where i want to. I step in front of traffic. they have no other option but to stop or slow down.”

    jt, they have another option: killing you.

    But at least you’ll die knowing there is a possibility that the driver might get ticketed.

    Now can we quit with the flamebaits?

  22. When does a vehicle passenger become a pedestrian? Specifically: if a passenger disembarks a vehicle from the front passenger door whilst the vehicle is in the left lane of a two lane one directional street, and thereby places himself in the path of moving traffic, is he now a pedestrian?. When he gets hit by a vehicle he has placed himself immediately in front of, who is criminally liable, and under what Act? Section etc?

  23. I received a $50 jaywalking ticket this morning in front of Dundas West Subway Station. Thanks to this helpful article, I think I may be able to fight it…and win!

    Thanks Dylan for this helpful article.

    To my fellow Dundas West Subway Station users – watch out! The cops might be targetting this area.

  24. Does anybody know what sorts of laws apply to joggers who run on the road? I find these people are a tremendous nuisance. Many act as if they own the road and will very stubbornly refuse to yield to vehicles. My understanding of the highway traffic act is that pedestrians are restricted to the sidewalk if one exists and may only use the road where there is no sidewalk.

  25. Hey I’m from ottawa. I was sitting at a light when these two punks crossed the walk when the light was green. (So now we have to wait for these two idiots to WALK across) I missed the lights and two cars ran the red light! Could I run over these two morons?

  26. A quote from the highway traffic act:

    Pedestrian crossing
    (22) Where portions of a roadway are marked for pedestrian use, no pedestrian shall cross the roadway except within a portion so marked. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 144 (22).

    Therefore, if there is a crosswalk, you must is it.
    And it doesn’t matter how far away it is.

  27. I quoted that in my post, and also explained why it only applies at intersections. Please read the whole post before you comment.

  28. In the USA driver etiquette really varies from region to region.Some “old” regions have had sidewalks for so long that drivers are aware of peds…also some “new” regions like So Cal drivers seem to be more ped aware. Yet in the burbs around here “stings” by Police on vehicles violating ped laws yield tremendous “catches”. This does not include mid-block crossings…only intersections (whethered signalized or not). I agree with the writer who indicated the madness of dead stopping with a vehicle righ behind you becsuae often the following driver cannot see the ped. On the other hand the likelihood of surviving a rear end collision is much higher than when struck by a car or truck in excess of 30 mph. If a child , or anyone , steps out in front of me and I can, I will slam the brakes no matter what is behind me…wouldn’t we all? My friends in the Police who are old-timers tell me that progressively, at least in the Mid-Atlantic States, drivers are getting more agressive, less couteous and less focused on driving. We can all point to cell phones, changing CDs, combing hair and eating etc…but the fact is that it seems it is a societal issue that everyone is in a hurry…including pedestrians…why is that? Is it because to live reasonably well families must be two earner households so someone is not home totake care of all the domestic and child-related activities? Are we all trying to cram too much in our lives? Is it chemical imbalances, bad diets. drugs or the lack of drugs? I do not think you can design out stupidity but I firmly believe the problem goes a lot deeper than law, IQ, or enforcement and education…all those may help but the root of the problem is a lot deeper I believe. I wish I had the smarts and time to work on it but I am in a hurry…have to meet my wife, who works , for lunch and there will be a lot of congestion, red light and rude and agressive drivers out there…plus those damn walkers, joggers and cyclists…boy don’t they slow you down?!

  29. I live in St. Catharines. I’m not sure what the laws are, but I know that at many crosswalks it is dangerous for the pedestrian to cross. The drivers more often than not believe they have the right-of-way, or seem to, and even cut right in front of pedestrians. I find it SAFER to cross where there are no crosswalks, and even if it is illegal to cross between crosswalks here, I’d rather do the safe and illegal thing than the possibly lethal thing. Also I wonder: if a pedestrian crosses where there is a not a crosswalk and a car speeds out from some side-route somewhere onto that road unexpectedly, does that driver have the right to expect the pedestrian to run or be run down?

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