Car commuters fight back while more walkers and cyclists die

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Photo: Dylan Passmore/Flickr

On Thursday morning, June 14, a car drove onto the sidewalk on Ottawa’s McArthur Avenue, hitting a woman and two children. One of the children suffered a head injury and is in serious condition in hospital.

That same evening, about 8 kilometres to the west, the Conservatives in Parliament began a pro-car, pro-pollution, climate-change-denying publicity stunt. That stunt took the form of an all-night filibuster, the notional purpose of which was to force the Trudeau government to disclose how much its key measure to combat climate change, a price on carbon, will cost.

The Conservatives, led by Andrew Scheer, were interested only in short-term monetary costs. They showed zero interest in hurricanes, typhoons, rising seawaters, the proliferation of forest-destroying spruce budworms, the destruction of polar bear and caribou habitat, damage to tropical agriculture, the spread of Lyme disease, or any of the many other costs of climate change. 

For Scheer’s party, tying up Parliament for a full night was their way to demonstrate they have fully joined the anti-environment bandwagon that helped propel Donald Trump and Doug Ford to power. 

The war against the car is over; the war against pedestrians is still raging

The Globe and Mail’s John Ibbitson identified a revolt of suburban car commuters as one of the big reasons for Ford’s recent victory in Ontario. He had a point. When Ford’s late brother Rob took power as mayor of Toronto, back in 2010, the first words out of his mouth were: “The war against the car is over!” Hockey shock-jock Don Cherry spoke at Rob Ford’s installation as mayor. He opened his remarks with a crack about “all the pinkos out there that ride bicycles”. 

Electoral victories for Rob Ford, Stephen Harper and Donald Trump clearly signalled that the war on the car, if there ever was one, was over. At the same time, the longstanding war on pedestrians and cyclists accelerated. It is now a raging conflagration. 

On Monday, June 9, a hit-and-run driver killed a woman in Toronto’s west end. 

The next day, also in Toronto, a driver hit and killed another woman on a bicycle. 

During the month of May, in Montreal, a woman was hit by a car and dragged several hundred metres, a hit-and-run driver killed a man on a main street in a West Island suburb, and a teenager suffered serious brain injury when he was hit by a car in the city’s east end. 

A plague of fatal and near fatal accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists has hit Canada’s major cities. Even the normally complacent national media are taking notice. In a lead editorial this past Thursday, the Globe and Mail points out that in Toronto, during 23 weeks of this year, 21 cyclists and pedestrians died in collisions with cars.  More troubling, the newspaper says, “the carnage to date is not an aberration but is, in fact, the new normal in the city.” 

The current mayor of Toronto, John Tory, wants to make conditions safer for those who choose to walk and cycle, but he has failed so far.  The Globe and Mail hopes he will now try harder. 

Others, such as Toronto city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, take the view that at least part of the solution would be simple. Ban bicycles from the roads entirely, the councillor recommends. Rob Ford had a similar view. Nobody has yet suggested banning pedestrians from sidewalks to save them from errant, out-of-control cars. But in fact, in many places, the way we design our cities, suburbs and towns constitutes an effective, de facto ban on pedestrians and cyclists. 

Design of cities and suburbs forces people to use cars

Residential districts where shopping and other services are centralized in soul-destroying, often far-distant strip malls, and where main roads are wide, noisy, inhospitable throughways, do not encourage walking. The mere act of walking or cycling on major suburban and exurban thoroughfares is at best alienating and uncomfortable, at worst downright dangerous, as the woman and two children on Ottawa’s McArthur Avenue discovered. 

Neighbourhoods that are hospitable to walkers and cyclists are few and far between. In fact, the phrase “walkable neighbourhood” has become a real estate agent term for older and more traditional urban environments that are blessed with mature trees, solid homes built close to each other, and shops and cafés that are accessible without a car. Invariably, homes in such walkable neighbourhoods are pricey, out of the reach of most families. The ability to walk to a local shop or café is fast becoming a new kind of class privilege.  

The choices of planners, politicians and developers have forced a large and growing population of working people into the suburbs, and even further out, to the exurbs. That is where one finds most of the available affordable housing these days. For those living in such places, a car, and usually more than one, is almost a necessity of life.  

Understandably, measures that can be construed as punishing drivers, such as a price on carbon, distress the folks who have been, in effect, herded into car-dependent suburbia and exurbia.  They worry about having to pay higher prices to run their vehicles when they already have so many financial stresses in their lives. In many families, both parents commute great distances to their jobs, while, outside Quebec, quality childcare is hard to find and prohibitively expensive. 

Politicians such as Doug Ford and Scheer dine out on those financial worries and insecurities. Compared to the pressures of daily life, the devastating impact of climate change is a distant reality to a good many hard-working, long-distance-commuting Canadians. And however frequently fatal accidents involving cyclists or pedestrians happen, they are not a pressing concern for the vast majority of commuters. 

When drivers were getting hurt too often governments acted

Decades ago, when car-on-car accidents were a more frequent and deadly occurrence, politicians and planners took notice. 

Starting in the 1950s in the U.S. and 1960s in Canada, governments replaced the old two- and three-lane highways with networks of safer, limited access expressways. They designed these new roads to move cars both between cities and towns and within cities. Limited access divided highways can take commuters to and from the suburbs with few stops. They also significantly limit the opportunities for collisions, especially of the head-on variety. In addition, governments upgraded and enlarged local roads, effectively turning many into highways. 

These traffic design enhancements, when they were done well, have made life better and safer for cars and their drivers, even if they have not solved the problem of traffic congestion. There are simply too many vehicles on the roads. 

But improved roads and freeways have done nothing for pedestrians and cyclists. In fact, the mega-roads of suburbia are positively hazardous for anyone not inside a car. 

Now that we have a car-focused urban landscape and built environment, changing it to make cities, suburbs and towns safer for walkers and cyclists would be a monumental task. In Canada, that task would require a high level of cooperation among developers, municipalities, provinces and the federal government. Don’t hold your breath.

It is cold comfort here in the West, but in the developing world the situation for walkers and cyclists is even more perilous than in highly developed countries such as Canada. 

In developing countries, where, not too long ago, most people moved around on foot, bicycle and sometimes-ramshackle public transport, an arrogant and heedless car-driving elite has emerged. In cities such as Kathmandu, Nepal, which this writer visited a couple of years ago, drivers roam the landscape like rabid carnivores, unfettered by traffic rules or even red lights. The vast majority who have to get around on foot manage as best they can, cowering in fear before the almighty automobile.  

The World Health Organization (WHO) considers traffic fatalities to have reached epidemic proportion. It estimates that road accidents kill about 3,500 people a day worldwide. About half of those are pedestrians and cyclists. 

That, however, is a story for another day.  

Photo: Dylan Passmore/Flickr

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