This week we saw a home-grown version of the populist playbook that is plaguing politics south of the border, ignoring evidence and elevating opinion to fact. I’m talking, of course, of the push to criminalize the act of crossing the street while using or holding a cellular telephone or music player.
In cities all over the world, there’s an emerging consensus, grounded in research, about how to make it safer to get around: educate drivers and enforce distracted driving laws, set lower speed limits for cars, and have streets that are designed to move people, not just single-occupancy motor vehicles. You can also make cities safer for everyone by investing in public transit and building transportation infrastructure that promotes cycling and walking.
Last year, in Ontario, the provincial police said more people were killed by distracted driving than by drunk driving, speeding, or not wearing a seatbelt. In the GTA, we have even more reasons to invest in options that get people out of cars: we’re expecting our region to attract another hundred thousand people a year for the foreseeable future. Accommodating that volume of population growth is a huge challenge, and it won’t be met by putting them all into cars.
The good news is that we have begun changing the way we live to reflect this reality: young people are staying in the city to raise families instead of moving out to the suburbs; corporate offices are locating downtown, and boomers are downsizing to stay here when they retire. You can live quite comfortably downtown without a car. I have done so for the past 15 years; commuting to and from work, school, and daycare on a bike with two kids and walking or taking transit to do just about anything I need to do.
Ensuring we have walkable, bikeable, transit-serviced cities is a huge win for drivers, too. I obey traffic laws, take up less room than a car does, and am responsible for virtually zero wear and tear on the roads. We need governments and policies that help encourage car-free living to the benefit of everyone in the province, drivers and pedestrians alike.
I know what it is like, sitting in a car, frustrated at pedestrians that seem more like obstacles than people; hazards in the way of our trip home and the ability to arrive on-time. The recently introduced private member’s bill on distracted walking seems to reflect this worldview - that pedestrians are a nuisance, and often at fault for being hit. But that’s nonsense - a Toronto Public Health report from 2015 states that two-thirds of pedestrians had the right of way when they were hit by drivers. If we truly want to keep our streets safe, we’d go after drivers, not pedestrians; it is the former group doing the killing, and the latter group doing the dying. Pedestrians already have a massive incentive to be alert crossing the street: they don’t want to get killed.
One last point, unrelated to road safety, but very much related to this private member’s bill: knowing what we know now about racial profiling, are we really going to let cops hassle young black kids for wearing headphones while crossing the street, this soon after fighting against carding? Are we willing to say “if you want to listen to music or talk to your friends on the phone while you’re getting around, you’ve got to be in a car”? That’s not the Toronto I know.