From The Toronto Star
Sunday, July 29, 2018
By PHILLIP GORDON MACKINTOSH
To read relentless news of pedestrian and cyclist deaths and injuries in Toronto is to relive the city’s early 20th century past.
We see the same cause of the tragedy (motor vehicles), hear the same heartfelt condolences, and note the same bromide from constable, politician or lobbyist: cyclists and pedestrians must attend vigorously to their self-interest on hazardous streets.
Crossings at Maclennan Ave. were labelled death traps when this picture was taken in 1937. Traffic officers were stationed at the bottom and top of the hill to make sure schoolchildren crossed — or dashed across — safely. (EI SCAN)
It never occurs to anyone that such platitudes have been rehearsed by civic leaders for over a century.
To be fair, they have no other words. Automobilization in Toronto since the 1910s has rendered the city’s community leaders virtually speechless. Why? Because there is only one — impossible — public policy to effect pedestrian and cyclist safety on streets dominated by motor vehicles: automobile prohibition. With prohibition as a workable policy left permanently “off the table,” what else can our leaders say?
Torontonians have long felt the threat posed by automobilization, watching the slaughter on roadways and sidewalks. A century ago, children died by the dozens at the wheels of motorists (90 were killed between 1919 and 1921).
The pedestrian and cyclist carnage continued through the 1920s and 1930s. Children especially were imperiled. City newspapers gruesomely described how motor vehicles flayed, crushed and dragged children to death.
It wasn’t always thus. Before the First World War, street traffic consisted primarily of walkers, slow-moving streetcars and horse traffic. Yet, by the end of the war, as motor vehicle ownership increased, collision statistics had risen precipitously.
Drivers ran through intersections, failed to yield to streetcars and riders, jumped curbs, drove on both sides of the road and cut off or bumped cyclists. Importantly, pedestrians could not yet accurately assess the time and space compression of fast-moving cars, or the emerging danger of an automobilizing environment.
Throughout the 1920s, the city’s irresistible opportunities for work attracted migrants, further swelling the numbers of pedestrians on the streets. Alas, pedestrian populations and automobile ownership ballooned simultaneously, neither constrained by countervailing public policy.
Compounding the situation, the automobile was seen as an excellent “vehicle” (as it were) for economic prosperity, enlivening the urban imaginations of Toronto’s politicians and business people.
Newspapers promoted it as the “perfect machine” and “the chariot of prosperity.” The car “had achieved its rightful prerogative over all other methods of transportation.” Such hyperbole propelled the automobile into an actual, lethal conflict with traditional street users, including carefree children on their ancestral playground.
So, what did policy-makers do to stop cars from killing children on the streets? Nothing, despite deputations to City Council by the Toronto Playground Association in 1920, and a 1928 motion by Alderman Pearce to ban automobiles from streets where children played. In every year between 1927 and 1934, dozens of toddlers died horribly in the streets.
The closest that leaders came to policy was encouraging drivers to be careful, and admonishing pedestrians that “The Game of Walking Has Been Speeded Up.” This meant persuading children (including preschoolers who simply strayed onto streets chasing butterflies, blowing whistles or pushing doll prams) of “the necessity of guarding against accidents by abstaining from contributory negligence,” as the Ontario Safety League put it.
This is why we look both ways before crossing the road — a solitary “policy” legacy of a history that systemically privileged automobiles above pedestrians and cyclists in the urban hierarchy.
Closely connected to looking “up and down before crossing the road” is an official predilection to blame pedestrians, cyclists and children for the horrors that befall them. To blame automobiles would be to confront them in policy. That won’t happen.
Call this what it is: political negligence. Any pedestrian or cyclist can tell you how to save lives in Toronto. Put severe restrictions on automobile use in pedestrian- and bicycle-heavy city neighbourhoods. This won’t happen, either.
A century ago, Toronto wouldn’t enact policy to prevent “the needless mangling of little ones,” those innocent “little tots of the streets” who died by the hundreds. Don’t expect policy-makers in 2018 to protect our adult bicyclists and pedestrians, equally precious, yet regarded by many as wilful and intrusive nuisances.
Phillip Gordon Mackintosh is associate professor of Geography at Brock University, and author of Newspaper City: Toronto’s Street Surfaces and the Liberal Press, 1860-1935.
Article reposted from The Toronto Star.