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.
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.
As Richard Florida has noted, Canadians like to criticise Americans’ inability to deal with gun deaths – but their own unwillingness to do anything about cycling deaths seems based on a similar myopia, and more Torontonians are killed by cars than guns.
Some will argue that road deaths are inevitable – that even if drivers follow the rules, humans will make mistakes, wander into traffic and die, and therefore we need to tolerate it. That is wrong. Humans will make mistakes – which is precisely why the environment should be designed with them in mind. If someone wanders into traffic – a child, a senior citizen – they don’t “deserve” to die. We must design our cities knowing that people make mistakes.
Two fundamentally contradictory visions are bumping up against each other. In the old model, if driving is the key to freedom, then cyclists and pedestrians need to get out of the way. They are audacious, misplaced and – even worse – entitled. Who and what are streets for, anyway? They are places to get through, and fast. Lowering speed limits to ensure pedestrians are safe makes no sense.
In the new model, however, streets aren’t just for getting through – they are places in their own right, designed for people, commerce, lingering and life. It’s the people, the human activity, that should come first. Cycling isn’t just for radicals and recreation, and lower speed limits make sense: they protect and enhance quality of city life. In Oslo, for example, where cars move slowly, an easy sharing of space takes place.
Inspired by the Norwegians, as well as the Dutch and the Danish, some urbanists on this side of the Atlantic have been trying to introduce the idea that, as the city gets denser, cycling and walking can become a great transportation option. But a choice must be made. The two models are based on competing philosophical assumptions. To straddle the two – as Toronto and so many other cities do – will continue to lead to tragic outcomes.
The promise of the car is a myth, and we cannot stay stuck between two worlds. It’s time to reclaim our freedom, our sense of adventure in our everyday lives by embracing the walkable, cycling city. To do so, we need to embrace a fundamental redesign of our streets.
Anti-cycling advocates are right about one thing: in walkable cities, pedestrians don’t follow rules. They can move informally, with ease. That’s true freedom.