On the Friday of the Civic Holiday weekend, a woman was struck and killed crossing Vaughan Road at Atlas Ave, just up the street from me. It was bound to happen – another ‘one’ pedestrian death. But this one was closer to home, closer to the local travel hazards my neighbours and I know too well.
Vaughan Road is known by many Toronto drivers. Its curvy travelling route dates to pre-colonial times. For those who don’t know the road, think of the jogs on the TTC Subway route between the St Clair West and Eglinton West stations (it follows a buried creek and natural ravine). On street level, with the same curves, just to the South, is Vaughan Road.
Atlas Ave starts at St Clair West and runs one-way Northbound to Vaughan before switching direction as part of the traffic mazes in the residential blocks south of the Allen Expressway. Atlas is a favorite through street for anyone driving from West downtown/midtown to the Allen. At the intersection of Atlas and Vaughan, most cars turn left. There is no stop sign, no pedestrian crossover, and no traffic light. Some of us who live in the neighbourhood drive through this or similar intersections along Vaughan. More of us navigate them as pedestrians, as people with mobility devices, and/or as cyclists. We are 8 to 80 years old, and beyond.
I am filled with grief for my 84-year-old neighbour’s loss of life. Grief turns to anger when I recall late nights of email writing and collective efforts on meetings with councillors that bore so little fruit. Changes we residents asked for remain a distant, neglected hope.
I worked to prevent this
I became concerned about pedestrian safety in my Oakwood Village neighbourhood eight years ago, while walking with my kids to our local school. Crossing Vaughan at Winona (one street West of Atlas), where there are traffic lights, I noticed someone had ripped down the sign about “No Right Turn on Red”. After I called the City, they reinstated it. But a month later it was gone again. That was when I started emailing my local councillor’s office. Meanwhile, my kids and I got used to crossing on our green light while rushing cars made right hand turns, on their red, in front of us. And behind the scenes of our daily pedestrian lives, in 2017, the City rescinded this one small pedestrian protection at this key neighbourhood intersection.
Concerned parents launched a safety subcommittee at the school and wrote regularly to the councillor of Ward 21, later including Ward 15 as well. We walked the neighbourhood, identifying “what hinders our safety?” and “what could improve things?” We even stood at the Vaughan and Winona intersection during rush hour, counting how many cars turned right on a red as well as when and why traffic backups happened. We proposed that the City add a few seconds to each East-West green light, to alleviate rush hour backup frustrations along Vaughan, and re-install the “No Right Turn on Red”, to protect pedestrians. With one traffic lane on Vaughan, cars weren’t gaining much from their right on red privilege anyhow.
My councillor’s staff told us that transportation planners were preparing intersection improvements. That sounded hopeful. We had shared our observations and proposals, and we wanted to connect directly. But no transportation staff reached out to our community school council, even though that school district spans the Vaughan and Winona intersection. Eventually, the City spent significant money on new traffic lights without a single public meeting, replacing automatic light rotations with a pedestrian-triggered button for North-South crossings. We almost always walk up to a red light now, versus what felt like a 50-50 chance before. With four high-rise apartments nearby, hundreds of pedestrians, including Vaughan Road bus users, face longer ‘commutes’ across Vaughan at Winona each day.
Changing from an automated to a pedestrian-triggered light rotation brought further ripple effects along Vaughan. Navigating Vaughan at Atlas – one block East of Winona, where Friday’s tragedy occurred – became a lot harder for pedestrians and drivers alike. I know this because there used to be a bus stop at Atlas on the North side. Most passengers hopping off the bus during rush hour could cross Vaughan easily, because each red light rotation generated cyclical breaks in the flow of Eastbound cars from Winona and had a natural traffic calming effect on Westbound cars heading towards it. I also know this from the occasional times I drive up Atlas and need to turn left onto Vaughan. It takes a lot longer to get a decent break in traffic flow, and I can feel my impatience and anxiety spiking as my heads flips left-right, left-right, left-right, and ahead at Southbound Atlas traffic headed onto Vaughan. The curved river-tracing angle of Vaughan Road doesn’t help, for pedestrians and car drivers alike.
Police reported that it did not appear the 84-year old was “in a crosswalk” when struck by the pickup truck. Indeed, there are no protections for crossing Vaughan at Atlas, but residents know that the intersection remains a common foot crossing. With worsening car speeds and traffic loads, one resident advocated for a formal pedestrian crossing numerous times over the years, but no changes came. Another resident suggested four way stop signs along the busy road. The only change we Atlas dwellers noticed was how TTC removed our bus stop, quietly, two years ago.
No one crosses Vaughan at Atlas from the bus anymore. But someone got killed anyhow.
Enough is enough
Mayor Chow says, “we want to work with you” to make Toronto safer, more inclusive. That will happen when staff and councillors make more time to connect with residents. This means visiting us at neighbourhood group meetings (e.g., the Oakwood-Vaughan Community Organization) and school council meetings, on street corners, and at local bus stops. By walking neighbourhoods and talking with diverse residents often, planners can improve transportation, spend wisely, and save lives.
Toronto’s Vision Zero commitment is about changing infrastructure to reduce traffic fatalities to zero. Meanwhile, staff regularly bypass meaningful resident engagement on changes, reproducing what I call ‘vision one’ – risking one precious life at a time.
I send condolences to family and community of the woman killed by a pickup truck driver while walking on the summer evening of Friday August 4. I regret the need to leverage a tragedy to reach our City with a message about the missing data in Transportation Services staff’s ‘Reports for Action’: Each neighbourhood and intersection is unique. Resident voices echo across Toronto. We want City staff to write to us, meet with us, and walk the streets with us. We need you to listen.