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Mad Max 2: Beyond Front Street

January 21, 2010

Three weeks ago, I wrote about how I crossed a busy street on a red light (actually, the light was green; but because I neglected to hit the button, the crosswalk never changed, and cars were given the right-of-way to make turns for the duration of the light). But I was cold and frustrated, and I dared the drivers to run over me. One guy accepted the dare, and… well, I backed off. He had 3500lbs on his side, and while I may be stupid, I’m not THAT stupid.

I wrote the following about my daily commute on foot:

“I’ve long felt that the area of Toronto below Front St. is Mad Max Territory; you do the best you can to survive and to hell with what the actual traffic rules are (assuming that there are any rules – at the nearby corner of Bay and Harbour, the traffic light died for about nine months a couple year ago; everybody just had to learn to get along during that time).”

For the ten years that I’ve lived in Toronto, I’ve felt that the city hates pedestrians – but it’s hard to make that argument when there aren’t more people getting killed (I’ve always assumed this was because we are all scared shitless all the time, and take extra care when crossing any street). But Toronto pedestrians have and had a bad start to 2010, as reported by the Toronto Star (7 deaths in 7 days was bad enough, but three more pedestrians were killed less than 24 hours after that article was printed.)

The current rash of deaths is probably – hopefully – just a blip, but enough of a trend has developed to justify asking questions about what is to be done – and whether anyone cares to do it. Inevitably, drivers and pedestrians are quick to blame each other for not following the rules;

But I don’t see any point in clinging to the argument that if everyone just followed the rules of the road, then everyone would be safe. First, “to err is human, to forgive is divine” – except that if you are a pedestrian, it all stops at the “err” part because you’re dead, regardless of whose “err” it was.

Also, the rules of the road are mostly stoopid – at least they are in Toronto. If you have a road system that is designed to fail, then you shouldn’t be surprised when it fails.

Unfortunately. I don’t have any grand ideas for preventing pedestrian deaths; I can only describe my own experiences, which may be of limited relevance. As I’ve written, I commute by foot south of Front St., which I consider to be Mad Max territory – everyone is walking or driving in every which direction, with backhoes or bobcats or cement trucks occasionally getting in your way – and survival is the number #1 mandate and to hell with the rules.

But that’s just a weird part of the city; I have less experience with the neighbourhoods where people are getting killed. I live near Church and Carlton, where there are five lights (inclusive) on Church St. between Carlton and Wellesday – about three lights too many. One set of lights was installed behind Maple Leaf Gardens because Loblaws keeps threatening to put in there, and apparently there is some law that says that grocery stores must have a traffic light behind them. It’s routinely ignored.*

Another light exists, I presume, because there is a grade school there. But since there’s always a crossing guard on duty to help the kiddies across the street, I’m not sure what purpose the lights serve. The third light is another trick one – it won’t actually change until a pedestrian hits the button. I have no idea what purpose these lights serve. Is the rest of the city designed this badly? I should do a grand walking tour to find out… or then again, maybe I shouldn’t.

I’ve linked previously to this story about the Dutch village of Makkinga, which did away with all of its traffic signs – and saw a sharp reduction in traffic accidents. It occasionally gets referenced here in Toronto, though I don’t know if anyone thinks it could work – instead we just lament that we’re not Dutch. It seems hard to believe that you can save lives simply by removing signs – I can even think of places that would actually benefit from more signs, just simply to slow everyone down.*

But much of the downtown area had way too many goddamned signs; we can do without them in a lot of places. There are enough pedestrians and bikes and other obstacles that drivers should be driving very carefully, regardless of whether they have the right of way or not. Hell, as I mentioned in my previously post, the traffic lights at Bay and Harbour – where cars enter the city from the Gardiner Expressway – were knocked out for about nine months while some condos were being built. I don’t recall any accidents; now, the lights are fixed and they have installed a new crosswalk (presumably to serve the new condo residents who don’t seem to exist), but I rarely use it because I’m afraid that drivers either don’t know it’s there or don’t care. All they see is green.

One of my favourite days of the year is the Gay Pride Parade – I’m not a big parade person, I prefer later in the evening, when Church St. is closed down to traffic. I try to make a point each year to walk down the middle of the street, even if I have nowhere to go. It’s an amazing feeling, walking down a street without having to worry about how to get from one side to the other without getting killed.**

* A couple of days ago, I almost saw an old woman get run over by a car on Yonge St. near the Esplanade. There is a long stretch of tunnel south of the Esplanade (multiple train tracks cross overhead) which drivers routinely use as a drag strip; every time I walk that way, some dickhead guns his engines through the tunnel, then slams on the brakes when he re-emerges.

There is also a bus station right across the street from the Esplanade, but no way to get across – you have to walk up to Front St. and back down, about a 5-10 minute trip. Of course, it takes just ten seconds to jaywalk across Yonge – but I’m not sure how many people realize that that stretch of Yonge St. is a drag strip, and you have to cross real quick.

** While I’m griping about Church St., I may as well point out that the sidewalks have an unbelievable amount of flotsam and jetsam on them. Boxes, bike racks, furniture, people, animals, you-name-it. You almost have to walk single-file down the entire street, just because half the sidewalk is filled with immovable objects.

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