Toronto’s continuing problems with automobiles

Toronto’s continuing problems with automobiles

Torontonians today hear the same platitudes as their older cousins: cyclists and pedestrians need to actively defend their self-interests. In other words, pedestrians and cyclists will have to find ways of protecting themselves on busy roads with dangerous motor vehicles.

It’s odd that Toronto’s policymakers, and even its enforcement officers, can only rehash an idea that has failed in practice catastrophically for over a century. Historical fatalities that involved children provide a window into Toronto’s unimaginative street policy.

Toronto’s political leaders are solely responsible for this intolerant street policy. Since the 1910s, they have been virtually bound to the automobile. This makes them powerless in terms of policy.

After the First World War, children died by the dozen at the hands of motorists . (90 between 1919-1921). Toronto’s children suffered in the 1930s and 1920s.

Newspapers in the city described almost daily and gruesomely how motor vehicles shattered skulls and broke bones and bled to death the “little kids of the streets.” Toronto’s preschoolers were dragged and beaten in their playground and the street by motor vehicles. Many of them, who were only three years old, did not have any recourse. The government never protected anyone.

From horses to cars

The motor-caused trauma was caused by a radical change in the Victorian street’s social function. The Victorian streets of Toronto grew organically from the walkers, omnibuses, and horse traffic. Here, an integrated system of outdoor living was created, which included the entire street, from curb to curb, sidewalk to sidewalk, roadway, and gutter.

Bicyclists did “scorch” newly-asphalted fin de siecle street, and they sometimes ran down children or adults in the first modernized cases of hit-and-run crime. But for the vast majority, it was a safe place. In 1920, as motor vehicle traffic and ownership grew, pedestrian, bike, and automobile accidents became more common.

As riders debarked, automobiles sped through intersections. They drove on both sides of the road. They jumped curbs, collided (and walked into buildings) with pedestrians. They sped up at level crossings and operated erratically.

The time-space compression caused by fast-moving traffic is difficult to judge for pedestrians and drivers. Children, in particular, struggle to adapt to this new street culture.

The Ontario Safety League’s campaign to promote pedestrian safety in the year 1923 is shown here, with examples of inappropriate behavior by both pedestrians and drivers. City of Toronto Archives

Foot traffic increased as the population grew to hundreds of thousands. Thousands waited for public transport and marched to stores, schools and churches, and crowded sidewalks.

It was inevitable that pedestrians and cars would end up in a crisis. The city and the province did not know how to stop someone from walking in front of a moving vehicle or prevent a motor car from hitting a pedestrian.

“The Chariot of Prosperity”

From a policy standpoint, the real problem was the economic importance of automobiles. The value of the car was evident to everyone, especially to Toronto’s business people and politicians. It was a “chariot of prosperity” and the “perfect machine.” It quickly “achieved [its] rightful prerogative above all other modes of transportation.”

The Globe called the motor-driven vehicle “the king of cars,” and declared that “the motorized car has earned its place in a civilized world.” It was an irony to ignore the fact that this paragon for civility caused deadly conflict with pedestrians including children playing tag or chasing butterfly.

What did Toronto’s policymakers actually do to prevent cars from killing kids on the street? Nothing.

The City Council rejected both the 1920 and 1928 motions and deputations that sought to ban motorized vehicles from streets where children were playing. Between 1927 and 1935, hundreds of children died in the streets.

Leopold MacCaulay of Ontario’s Highways Ministry, who had been responsible for the highways in Ontario, said that after three years of unconscionable deaths — 30 toddlers each year — he couldn’t “help but shudder” at the “needless mangling” of children.

MacCaulay, misunderstanding his role in the solution to policy, believed that “it would seem completely unnecessary” to ask drivers to protect these children. He continued: “The instinct for humanity should be enough, but these figures prove that it isn’t.”

The only policy that has ever been devised in order to protect people and cyclists on automobilized highways was self-preservation. The Ontario Safety League referred to this as “the necessity to guard against accidents by abstaining in contributory negligence”.

Look both ways

Since we can remember, we always look both ways before crossing the street — this is the only municipal policy to stop people being hit by cars. This policy is offered to accuse non-automobilers of not paying attention to their safety.

Do cars matter more in Toronto than people? Arturo Castaneyra /Unsplash

We all know that automobiles are to blame, but just like “guns do not kill people. People kill people,” cars also don’t. Drivers kill people. Like the gun, it seems that the car is infallible.

Toronto’s pedestrians and cyclists have a simple solution to saving lives: ban automobiles in the areas where we live. This is not possible today because cars are more important than pedestrians.

Death and injury are, therefore, inevitable externalities of modern car technology’s benevolence. The City of Toronto would not adopt a policy to save the innocent and darling toddlers that fell in the hundreds over a century. It will also do nothing to protect adult pedestrians and bicyclists, who are viewed by many as pests.

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