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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Shell shock and paralysis

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Last week, as pedestrian deaths in the GTA mounted, several media outlets asked me how I felt about this seeming epidemic. I generally replied that I was horrified.

I also tried to look for an explanation. After the tenth death in just over a week, I wrote a post last week wondering if perhaps a week of poor visibility was a factor. I hoped that a change in the weather would bring an end to these fatal accidents. I also wrote an op-ed in the Star pointing out that most of these collisions took place in the suburbs, where the infrastructure is often dangerous for pedestrians.

In the following 5 days, 3 more pedestrians were killed by motor vehicles, all within the boundaries of the old City of Toronto. It’s obviously more than just overcast weather and suburban infrastructure, hazardous as they are. There have now been 7 pedestrians killed in one month in Toronto, possibly the most ever in a single month since amalgamation. Another 7 have been killed in the GTA.

By this point, my feeling is shell-shock. I have no idea how to explain what is happening. It’s as if all possible causes of pedestrian deaths have come together at the same time: bad visibility; inattentive and aggressive drivers; heavy vehicles (5 or more of the 14 deaths); distracted pedestrians (for goodness’  sake, do not cross the street while talking on a cellphone); terrible infrastructure (the intersection of Danforth and Broadview, where a man was killed on Friday, is particularly bad for pedestrians – sweeping corners that allow vehicles to turn at speed).

There was no official response from the city to this tide of death until yesterday, when the Mayor answered questions about the deaths in a media scrum. The tragedy is that the City could have been putting pedestrian safety programs in place for several months now, and could have had the resources to respond immediately to the rising tide of tragedies.

Last May, the City approved a thoughtful new Toronto Walking Strategy, which included many initiatives aimed at making walking safer (such as leading pedestrian intervals for traffic lights, no right turns on red at dangerous intersections,  improving intersections, and safety campaigns). It is to be implemented by a new Pedestrian Projects section of the new Public Realm office.

The new pedestrian group is funded by a modest fund (a few million dollars) put in reserve from the advertising revenue of the new Street Furniture Program. That money can’t be used elsewhere, so it is entirely separate from the City’s budget. The idea is that money earned by advertising in the pedestrian realm gets spent on the pedestrian realm.

But the Pedestrian Projects group has been paralyzed because hasn’t been able to use the money to bring on the staff needed to actually implement the Walking Strategy. Although its budget is completely independent and has no effect on the City’s operations budget, the hiring freeze imposed on hiring new staff under the City’s budget has been applied to the Pedestrian Projects office as well. As a result, the Strategy has not yet got off the ground, and the City was unable to respond quickly as pedestrian deaths mounted.

The Toronto Pedestrian Committee (of which I am co-chair) is pushing the City to allow the Pedestrian Projects office to use the funds it already has to hire staff so that it can start implementing programs that make the streets safer for pedestrians. Last night, CBC local TV news at 6:00 led with this issue and showed Mayor David Miller saying they would look for ways to hire the needed staff. Today, city council is supposed to take time to talk about this epidemic of pedestrians killed by vehicles on Toronto’s streets.

We’ll see what happens.

Photo by Kevin Steele



  1. Word is the police are now targeting pedestrians and handing out tickets with impunity.

    I actually saw one today at King & George, to a George Brown chef student crossing the street midblock (King St. in this section is one of the most well-scaled and pedestrian-friendly stretches in the city).

    What can we do? If you think you are going to get a ticket…can you just keep walking?

  2. Good luck Dylan. An unrelated question: Why are some traffic lights set up so that the pedestrian countdown automatically cycles down to zero, but then resets if no-one has pressed the walk button? It’s unexpected and confusing for the crossing-man icon to reappear just as you thought the light was going to change in your favor and it’s an obstacle to efficient walking or cycling downtown. Especially when it then takes a full 60 second cycle for the light to respond to walk button presses.

    A pedestrian and cyclist friendly city would have pedestrian walk signals that behaved predictably and responded promptly to button presses.

  3. The death of 7 pedestrians in the past month is nothing to laugh about.

    However, as a former Montrealer, I do have some thoughts as to the reason for why this has happened.

    Let’s face it, for the most part, Torontonians are bullies when they drive.

    In no other city do I hear people using their car horns as much as they use their cellphones. They act like the road they’re driving on is meant for them and them alone, and courtesy for anyone else not inside their vehicle is at their discretion.

    Montrealers have to deal with snow in winter, and therefore although they may be suicidal in some of their driving habits, do understand some of the winter basics when there’s snow on the ground.

    Yes, Torontonians have had to deal with snow for the last few years, but that is more an exception to the rule. There have been far too many winters where I can recall coming to Toronto both as a child and adolescent, dressed for full winter warfare, only to find nothing but the bitter cold and dead grass. Fact is, in the December just prior to Winter Storm ’99, I can recall roaming Toronto’s streets in shorts and a t-shirt.

    Torontonians don’t really have a winter (as evidenced by the City’s lack of proper snow equipment), and this year, because of the lack of snow and ice, it’s like their regular, overly aggressive driving habits have gone undeterred this season.

    Moving on, let’s take a look at vehicles being allowed to turn right on a red light. The City of Montreal briefly tried to embrace this policy, along with the rest of the Province of Quebec, but then nipped the idea within City limits, due to far too many pedestrian related accidents.

    This is not something I feel should be allowed with a metropolitan city such as Toronto. It’s just not safe. There are too many cars, too many people. This turning right on the red is just not feasible anymore, and should be removed within City of Toronto limits.

    Lastly, what is the City of Toronto’s problem with left hand turn signals at intersections? Did no one, when planning this City ever think that people, when driving, are not going to want to keep driving until they find a proper street to turn down on. As well, the 30 seconds that some intersection do allow for drivers to turn left, while keeping opposing traffic on hold, is ludicrous and insulting.

    The GTA needs to take a serious look at some of their archaic driving and pedestrian policies, and get with the times.

    Left turn lights at intersections, pedestrian overpasses or underpasses at crossings where there is far too much trafic, an end to the turn on right policy. These are just common sense, not radical ideas

  4. Many of you will have heard me say this before (my apologies), but it usually goes ignored, and I want to set the record straight from the beginning of the discussion.

    Jaywalking is legal.

    Articles on pedestrian deaths is full of commentors laying blame at the feet (pun intended) of pedestrians. Almost all who mention jaywalking incorrectly seem to think it is illegal. In fact, jaywalking is legal in Ontario.

    Cars have the right-of-way when you are jaywalking, and either cars or PEDs have the right-of-way at marked or signaled crossings based on established rules.

  5. It should be remembered that streets are being designed NOT for the posted speed limit, but 10 km over the posted speed limit (except for the 400 series of highways, of course, where it is designed for 20 km over the posted speed limit). The key word is DESIGNED.

    This results in wider lanes, which takes pedestrian longer to cross; gentler corner curves, which allow higher speeds for cars turning right; and no pedestrian signal button on the island, should anyone get halfway across.

    Roads are designed for cars, not pedestrians. They have ended up as an afterthought for road designers.

  6. The sudden rise in deaths certainly is troubling. Of course, there are a lot of factors likely involved. But none of those listed by Dylan can explain the sudden rise in deaths. To me, a more plausible explanation is the weather: it’s been too damn good this month, which is likely to bring more pedestrians out on the streets. Could that, coupled with winter driving conditions, and the fact that drivers are not expecting pedestrians in such numbers at this time of year, explain the difference?

    The average daily maximum in Toronto this month has been -1.1C, compared to -4.6C last year. Furthermore, the rise above the seasonal norm occurred around Jan. 12 — and 11 of the 14 deaths have occurred since then.

    For “fun”, I graphed the relation between temperature and deaths over the month, but I can’t post the image here (can I?) So, if you are interested, please take a look at the graph in the post I created on blogger.

  7. ‘Christopher King’, I agree with almost everything you said. I spent five years in Montreal, ten in Toronto, and four in Tokyo (more later).

    “Let’s face it, for the most part, Torontonians are bullies when they drive.” Yes, and bully more, and drive less attentively than Montrealers, despite the old Ontario saws against Montreal drivers. A lot of this has to do with virtually no police enforcement, other than: speeding, parking, and sweeping up accidents. You can swing across three lanes, never use a turn signal, fail to yield, and crowd cyclists into the gutter, in view of a cop and exactly nothing will happen. If you cause an accident, the cop (who drives in from the 905) will identify with the people in cars.

    I agree that urban streets are a poor place for right turns on red, and Torontonians are entitled to it least of all. That needs to end, and pedestrian priority needs to start. Cars turn immediately on green despite pedestrians on the corner. I start walking against the red (if there’s no oncoming) and get in front of them. Toronto drivers look nowhere else. They only yield because I am an angry 6′ man; they won’t stop for my wife: cowards.

    In short, Toronto drivers are infants, and should be treated and punished like a two-year old having a tantrum in the grocery store.

  8. There’s no explanation needed. All of this is pure coincidence and fluke. It’s such a convoluted list of events which all contribute to causing the accidents. It’s no different if you go 3 months without a single pedestrian fatality but no one will complain or write a story about that.

  9. ‘TokyoTuds’, thanks for that. Can you tell the Star they are idiots, please. They had an article stating it was. Sorry, no link.

  10. Misuse and abuse of “right on red” is the biggest problem I see as a pedestrian. (It also affects me as a cyclist–often from other cyclists–and as a driver.) After learning to make rolling stops at stop signs, drivers now figure that they can roll through any red light or stop sign as long as they’re turning right. They especially feel that way if they have a coffee in their hand, or a cellphone to their ear.

    The slow response and unpredictability of traffic signals where the button has to be pushed is another problem. Plenty of times I’ve pressed the button to cross Bloor at Brunswick, only to jaywalk a minute later when the light hasn’t changed.

    Just now, I sent a request to the City to give an automatic pedestrian signal when crossing Finch at Seneca Hill. Everyone coming to Seneca on the Finch bus has to cross Finch to get to/from Seneca’s campus, as the eastbound Finch 39 stop is on the south side and the campus is on the north side. That’s thousands of people every day. Yet to get the walk signal, someone has to remember to press the button. Of course, when no one presses the button, they just cross on the vehicular green, never mind the red hand.

  11. I am sorry Christopher but if Toronto pedestrians were in Montreal (even more so in Hong Kong), we would be talking about fatalities in the hundreds. People adapt their behaviour to their surroundings.

    Dylan, while you are looking at ways to make things safer, perhaps you could look into the placement of traffic lights. I can’t recall any city that has worse placement than Toronto. I would even go so far as to say that such placement is part of the problem. They are much to low and should also be made to be visible on the other side of intersections.

  12. @Christopher King: I completely agree with all your points, especially the right turn on red. I’ve been to Montreal many times and found that prohibiting right turns on reds makes for a much safer pedestrian environment. Here, as a car approches an instersection, I find that if the driver is going to be making a right turn, they tend to come to a rolling stop, check for oncoming traffic, and if they are able to, make the turn without ever coming to a full stop. In effect, they are treating the red light as a yield sign. This problem is especially prevalent in the outer 416, and the only way to prevent this is with an outright ban on right-hand turns on red lights.

  13. @Anthony

    I think the flashing hand followed by reversion to walk signal has to do with a) the walk button not being pressed, and b) no traffic waiting as detected by the induction loops at the cross-street. The countdown begins but when it gets to the point where the traffic light should turn yellow, it doesn’t as the devices have shown no need for it. But basically it’s a programming error: Siemens (or whoever is responsible for those grey boxes that control the traffic signals) should correct this so that if the above two criteria are not met then the countdown should not begin.

    And by the way, pushing the button does work to get a cross signal – however, when the walk signal will appear depends on at which stage of the cycle the lights are at. If you get to an intersection shortly after the light has turned against you, and you press the walk button, you’ll get a walk signal quite quickly. However, if you show up late it the cycle, the system waits for some longer period of time. There’s some logic to this but not exactly sure of what it is.

    Finally, cyclists whose bikes are not aluminum can activate lights at cross-streets by stopping over the induction loop: look for the rectangle outline covered by tar. Some intersections have white dots to show you where to stop on this loop to activate the lights in your favour. Stopping on the loop is equivalent to pressing the walk button and means you don’t have to galumph over to press the walk button on your bike!

  14. @ Nick

    Oops, first paragraph, last sentence of my post should read “Siemens (or whoever is responsible for those grey boxes that control the traffic signals) should correct this so that if the above two criteria are not met then the countdown should *not* begin”.

  15. Thank you, Dylan. The response by TPS today and the media coverage has got my blood boiling! I can’t believe they’re blaming peds for this. Seems to me (though I can’t find the info to verify) that most of these incidents happened when ped had right of way. TPS needs to go after aggressive drivers.

  16. Does Toronto have any sort of a Pedestrian Union? If not, it may be time to set one up.

  17. Every one of these pedestrian fatalities was investigated by police (sometimes closing the intersection for hours). I realize those investigations are still open and charges and court cases may be pending, but it’d be great if the police could aggregate what they’ve found so that they can release it publicly (without having to wait to meet the burden of proof required in any one case).

    It might help focus the debate. What if none of the drivers were making a right on red and none of the victims were listening to an MP3 player?

  18. Pedestrian Union motto: “Everyone’s a member, some just don’t pay their dues”

  19. Yes, drivers must also remember that old seniors crossing the road cannot always move fast enough to get out of the way even if the lights do change against them. What some drivers need is patience. Also, at some streets the pedestrian countdown seems to go really fast, at others, too long. Where is the consistency? There should be at least a minimum time to let someone cross the road. 10 seconds on Finch East with the snow & ice to clamber over in the winter isn’t enough.

  20. Yeah, I’m starting to think about a pedestrian union too. Maybe Walking Action or something. I love Antony’s motto!

  21. Re: jaywalking is legal. I read through the post and while I agree that jaywalking is indeed legal, there are by-laws that are broken when the rules aren’t followed (e.g. the pedestrian negatively impacts traffic on their way across the street).

    We all need to be more aware on the streets, we all have to keep our eyes and ears open and drivers have to recognize that they’re driving around in giant missiles and that there is a great deal of responsibility required of them.

  22. How about someone gives the ‘Toronto Cyclist’s Union’ a kick in the @$$, and also change it to the ‘Toronto Human-Powered Union’. We all want the same thing: not to die under a car.

  23. Re: aborted countdowns. They happen when a car trips the loop but then vacates it after the countdown starts, usually by turning right. It’s not a programming flaw. The other major ped-signal change occurs when the green light gets “held” after the countdown completes. This is for transit vehicles, particularly streetcars.

    I think the pedestrian deaths are largely coincidental. Sometimes the odds line up like that, like flipping a coin and getting heads a dozen times in a row. If we’re lookign for trends, the ever increasing role of distractions on the part of both drivers and pedestrians is partly to blame as well. At this point I do make sure cross traffic has stopped before crossing at an intersection, because I’ve had several close calls with oblivious turning traffic fairly recently, if I was distracted I’d probably have gotten hit.

  24. Nick and Ed —

    The issue of delayed walk signals has to do with when the button is pressed.

    In Toronto, in most cases where you need to press a button to get a walk signal (usually at lower-volume side streets), the signals go through a continuous loop every xx seconds (downtown, most are 60 to 70 seconds, but Spadina is 90 and there are other variants, especially on Lake Shore). This is divided up between the main street and the side street. To keep it simple, let’s say 35 seconds for the main street and 25 for the side street.

    However, before the side street can get a green, there needs to be enough time to give a “flashing don’t walk” on the main street. Let’s say that’s 15 seconds. That means 20 seconds main street “walk”, 15 seconds “flashing don’t walk”, 25 seconds side street. Even though the side street starts at t=35 seconds, the transition process starts at t=20 seconds.

    Side streets are often set up so that a green will only be triggered if (a) a vehicle is detected, (b) a pedestrian presses the button. Using the example above, it means that you need to press the button before t=20 seconds to give enough time for the transition process to start. If you press the button at t=21 seconds, you’re too late. And because timings circulate every 60 seconds, you’ll wait another 75 seconds until you get a walk signal.

    (I nearly missed my bus this morning because of this exact phenomenon. Would’ve missed it if I hadn’t jaywalked.)

    This could be avoided by forcing the side street to come up every cycle regardless of traffic or pedestrians on the side street, but signal designers usually do not like this at minor intersections because they view it as unnecessary delay to the main street (including transit) if there is no one waiting on the side street.

    Alternately, you could have the main street “flashing don’t walk” signal run pre-emptively, just in case someone presses the button at the last minute, then switch back to “walk” if the side street green is not required. Then you get people thinking that the signals are malfunctioning (and maybe you get TPS ticketing people for crossing on the flashing don’t walk…).

  25. Those main-street-counting-down-to-zero-then-back-to-walk, can be very irritating to pedestrians coming up to the intersection wanting to cross the main street. That ends up as a longer wait.

    It can be really frustrating if you see your bus a block or two away coming to the stop on the other side. What do you do? Concede that you will miss the bus and will have to wait another 10 minutes, or jaywalk if the way is clear to get to the bus stop before the bus arrives? All because of the false assumption with the countdown signal.

  26. I think a big part of the problem here in Portland, Oregon is both education and enforcement of law.

    For the most part, our streets are still on a pre-1920’s grid, with sharp corners and small streets (except for main arterials which have been widened and redesigned, and a couple of freeways that cut through the city).

    We have quite a few laws in place that seem to favor pedestrians, such as that every street corner is considered a crosswalk, marked or not, and traffic must stop for pedestrians – but nobody knows that this is a law, and nobody is ever punished for not upholding it. Right turns on red are legal here, but you must wait until any pedestrians crossing the street you are turning onto have cleared your lane and the one next to it – most people also don’t know or follow this law, and I don’t think anyone is ever cited for breaking it either.

    Most pedestrian deaths here are in the outer areas of the city with people not crossing in crosswalks, and while I don’t really advise this, I think it tells something about the places in which they were crossing – usually it’s on large streets (4 or more lanes) where traffic speeds are high, and there are traffic signals no more often than every 5 (large) blocks.

    I think, while the problem is often recognized, the city/state are slow to do anything about it, as narrowing streets or putting in more signals is sure to slow traffic speeds, and generally our departments of transportation are 95% focused on spending money to move traffic faster, not spending money to slow it down. In general, it seems to be much easier to get this kind of thing done in the very inner part of Portland, but in the outskirts and suburbs, and especially on state-managed roads, it’s nearly impossible.

  27. @JamesMallon – apologies, but I already have my hands full trying to advocate for cyclists. But thanks for the suggestion…
    That said, the Toronto Cyclists Union is working in partnership with the Toronto Coalition for Active Transportation (an organisation that is essentially what you are asking the bike union to become…)on getting the City of Toronto, and Province of Ontario to adopt a Complete Streets policy similar to what has been spreading like wildfire in the US. See for more info. We are currently putting the final touches on our new site – launching soon.

    Complete Streets are streets that are built/designed to accommodate all road users with a particular focus on reducing issues for the most vulnerable road users – namely pedestrians and cyclists.

    We have a long way to go in Toronto – the car has been king for over half a century, and this period of transition towards meaningful accommodation and encouragement of active transportation will be a long drawn out, and sometimes painful process. Municipal and Provincial gov’ts need to start investing in public eduction campaigns about road sharing best practices for all road users. Editorials that lay blame and print incorrect information are not enough, though they do (especially when presenting accurate and unbiased information) help to raise awareness of these issues.