Want to Stop Pedestrian Deaths? Just Criminalize Walking!

Public Domain. C.W. Jefferies/ 1837 Rebellion

It's been a while since there has been so much talk of revolution, so much crime in the streets of Toronto the Good. It's been, like 180 years since Mackenzie and the rebels marched down Yonge Street, brazenly ignoring every red light and countdown signal.

countdown sign

Lloyd Alter/ No wine for you unless you wait./CC BY 2.0

But that's what is happening now, thanks to the incredible zero vision of our politicians and police. We have noted earlier that after the dramatic rise in the number of deaths of walking and biking people at the hands (or more precisely, grilles and wheels) of drivers of cars and trucks, Toronto’s Mayor John Tory promised that the city would cut the number of deaths to zero in ten years. And the way they are going to do it is to get the walking people off the roads.

(NOTE: I am not using the words pedestrian or cyclist anymore. We keep trying to say “driver” instead of “car” and similarly, pedestrian and cyclist seem to somehow objectify them. They are people doing what people do, which is walking or biking.)

That’s why the response to the problem is to blitz intersections where walking people were crossing while the countdown clock was running. Those are people crossing while the light is green and the clock is helpfully telling us how much time there is until the light turns yellow. And don’t complain if walking people get squished because they deserved it. As police spokesman Clint Stibbe tells the press and is quoted by Glyn Bowerman in Torontoist, speaking of walking people:

There’s a perfect example of somebody that’s not using the roadway properly but is the first to complain about maybe being involved in a collision. The reality is they have no priority on the road, and had something had happened, that group that was entering the roadway, really, they shouldn’t have been there.


Highway Traffic Act, Ontario/Screen capture

Others would say they do have priority since the light is green. But not in Toronto, even though the law actually says that pedestrians even have the right of way when the light turns red, if they are already in it: “Every pedestrian who lawfully enters a roadway in order to cross may continue the crossing as quickly as reasonably possible despite a change in the indication he or she is facing and, for purposes of the crossing, has the right of way over vehicles.”

But a revolt is brewing in Toronto. Glyn Bowerman continues:

...the takeaway is “they have no priority on the road.” Right. Pedestrians rarely do in this town. We’re so worried about congestion, about traffic flow, but the fact is congestion is caused by too many cars on the road. Full stop. The best way to combat congestion is to have fewer cars on the road. This could involve congestion pricing like London, England. It could also be as simple as making alternatives to driving safer and more attractive, wherever possible....

This is a foolish law, and this crackdown is antithetical to council’s stated goals. Rather than wasting police resources on enforcing it, we should be appealing to the province to scrap it altogether, as they did in New York City. Until then, this is a law I’ll continue to scoff. I just can’t take it seriously.

Even more blatant and brazen is Matt Elliot, who writes in Toronto Metro: Call me an outlaw: I will keep breaking laws on Toronto's streets and I won't apologize

When it comes to pedestrian countdown timers, I might be the city’s number one scofflaw. Though the highway traffic act, Toronto police and Mayor John Tory say pedestrians aren’t supposed to cross when the countdown has started, I never obey this. If there are five or six seconds left, I’m crossing.
I break this rule at least a dozen times a day. And I’m not sorry.

I admit all this not to brag about my cool rebellious ways but instead to point out that our infrastructure and our laws are too often set up to criminalize common-sense behaviour. The reason for this is generally rooted in an old-school desire to prioritize cars over active transportation – those travelling on foot or by bike.

These are responsible citizens, members of the press, proud of the fact that they are breaking the law. I will pile on, and note that I treat countdown signs the way drivers treat yellow lights: a reason to go faster. And I get across before the light changes.

Montgomery's tavern

Battle of Montgomery's Tavern (now a condo site)/Public Domain

After the 1837 rebellion, about 150 rebels were transported to Australia. Perhaps if enough of us keep doing this, they will do the same again. I've always wanted to see Australia.