Thu 14 Jun 2018
Toronto’s latest toll of cyclists and pedestrian deaths is hardly unique – cities all bought the myth that cars give us freedom
In the last two years, 93 pedestrians or cyclists have died violently on the streets of Toronto. Just out running errands. Off to the doctor. On their way to work. Then without warning, human flesh encountered metal. The latest example on Wednesday, in which a woman on a bike was killed in front of the University of Toronto, reflects a state of emergency.
If this sounds like a war zone, well, it can feel that way on city streets the world over. Anxiety has begun to permeate everyday urban life: parents stress about their kids walking home from school; office workers check and double-check the street before rushing to a nearby cafe; cyclists act erratically when their truncated bike lanes dump them into fast-moving traffic. People are on edge everywhere.
Meanwhile, automobile companies brand their vehicles with names like Explorer, Escape, Liberty and Journey. Cars are designed to look like birds and rockets, and are sold to us via multimillion-dollar ad campaigns complete with slogans such as “Hand of the free”, “Choose freedom” and “Adventure is calling”. After 100 years of marketing, we have continued to believe – and want to believe – that the car gives us unfettered personal liberty.
So we designed our cities and our streets for them. And the two-hour commute has become normalized to a public that spends the equivalent of 22 days a year just getting to and from work. Meanwhile, others are seeking a new way to live. It doesn’t take long to expose the environmental, social and health costs of sitting in traffic. It is nothing like freedom. But the power of the idea that cars bring us freedom – despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary – is so pervasive that active resistance to change is fierce.
If someone wanders into traffic – a child, a senior citizen – they don’t ‘deserve’ to die
Some cities are fighting back, adding density, pursuing revitalisation through infill buildings, and creating complete, mixed-use communities where it is possible to live close to work. This may sound like land-use planning, but it’s really all about how we get around the city – the crux of our urban quality of life. When we design our cities differently, when we get the densities and the mix of uses right, then you can choose to forgo the long commute – you can walk or cycle.
But the tragic rise of cycling and pedestrian deaths in a city such as Toronto, the biggest city in one of the world’s most progressive countries, demonstrates that we are caught in the transition. We are adding density and pedestrians and cyclists without transforming the design of our streets, and in many cases refusing even to lower speeds limits, which tends to reduce deaths dramatically.