It's Time to Get Serious About Dealing With Cars and Trucks in the City

Senior Safety Zone

In Toronto and New York, Vision Zero is just talk. It's time for action.

In Toronto where I live, a woman was killed while crossing the street by what The Star describes as "the driver of a truck." A moment later, she was run over again. Both drivers took off. I have highlighted a couple of points in the Star's description:

According to witness accounts, the woman was first hit by the driver of a fuel truck with a blue cab and silver tank travelling east on Sheppard and turning right onto Midland, he said. The truck struck the woman and knocked her to the ground before striking her with its back wheels, killing her, Moore said. The driver of the truck kept going, he said. Several minutes later, Moore said witnesses saw the driver of a white car, possibly a Honda Civic, strike the woman again.

Of course, the Police spokesperson is quoted in the Sun: "The truck kept going, didn’t skip a beat,” Moore said, adding it’s possible the driver was unaware a pedestrian had been hit" – already setting up a defense for the driver. The police found the Mack truck and driver the next day, and no charges have been laid, no doubt because the driver will say he didn't know he hit anyone. This usually works; in New York recently, the driver of a truck got off after killing a courier by using this excuse – the cyclist "must have hit a pothole and fell under the truck." Right.


Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The woman in Toronto likely fell under the rear wheels because the turning truck doesn't have side guards; they are not required in North America. The Ministry of Transport recently looked at truck safety and did not come up with any recommendations, noting:

It is not clear if side guards will reduce deaths and serious injury or if the guards will simply alter the mode of death and serious injury. For example, VRUs [vulnerable road users] may strike the guards and be deflected into another lane of traffic to suffer a serious injury as part of around the vehicle, not just at the side.

They can show that to the family of the woman just killed by this classic right hook.

Midland and Shepard, Toronto

Midland and Sheppard, Toronto, where the crash happened/ Google Maps/Screen capture

There are so many things wrong with this picture. The wide suburban roads are designed so that people drive quickly. The curve radii at the corners are so big that you barely have to slow down to turn. The typical Mack truck has terrible visibility with a long hood; you can barely tell if anyone is in front. And of course, the truck has no side guards so it is easy to get sucked under the rear wheels.

All of these could be fixed, but it might slow down traffic, trucks are expensive, side guards are heavy and hurt fuel efficiency, so nothing gets done and another Toronto senior citizen gets killed just minding her own business, crossing the road legally, not looking at her phone or wearing a hoodie.

Instead, we get the Toronto version of Vision Zero, where they just put up big yellow signs saying "turning traffic must yield to pedestrians and cyclists". I suppose they will have to add one of those at Sheppard and Midland.

ghost bike sign in New York City

Beyond my Ken on Wikipedia/CC BY 4.0

In New York City recently, a guy on a bike was minding his own business, waiting for a red light to change, when a car blew through a red light at high speed, hit another car which then spun into the cyclist, pinning him against the wall and killing him. It was such a shocker that even the car-loving tabloids are taking notice. In the Week, Ryan Cooper says it's time: American cities need to phase out cars.

...the terrible toll of injuries and deaths inflicted on New York's cyclists and pedestrians this year is simply what happens when one allows cars to roam free in cities. It is highly risky to allow huge, heavy steel cages capable of high speeds to be flying around crowds of delicate human bodies. It takes only a slight error or moment of inattention to get someone brutally killed.

He notes that cars have become a requirement for most Americans, even in dense cities. Most have lousy transit and are "a sort of no-man's-land where bus and train service aren't good enough to enable a truly car-free lifestyle for most residents — but driving and parking are still a monumental inconvenience."

The problem in New York and Toronto is not physical; dedicated bus lanes and bike lanes could be installed overnight in both cities. "A proposal to ban private vehicles from just a few blocks of the clogged 14th Street in lower Manhattan to improve bus service inspired screaming outrage from the reactionary New York Post, and has been repeatedly blocked by a judge." And it wasn't even a ban; it was a scheme modelled on Toronto's King Street where cars can get onto the street, they just can't drive the length of it.

The problem in both cities is cultural, screaming outrage if speed limits are lowered or bike lanes installed. The drivers vote in the politicians who call it all a war on the car, and those politicians follow their constituents' wishes, even as more senior citizens, children and people on bikes get killed.

However, with our climate crisis, our congestion crisis, our vehicular murder crisis, with so many crises happening at once, the conclusions are inescapable. We have to phase out cars while improving transit, sidewalks, bike and other micro-mobile Transportation. It can be gradual, it doesn't have to be every car, it can be step-by-step, and alternatives have to be there to replace the cars.

The general objective should be to make walking or biking as easy and safe as possible, and channel the new demand for non-car transport into building out frequent, high-quality transit service to every corner of the city.

This is what a true vision zero looks like: zero deaths, zero carbon, zero time waiting for a bus that is no longer stuck in traffic. And alas, with the current bunch of politicians, it is going to be a long time coming.