10/29/2015 12:26 EDT | Updated 10/29/2016 05:12 EDT

Pedestrian Safety Must Be Part Of The Urban Transit Conversation

Waiting in the zebra crossing
Jose antonio Sanchez reyes via Getty Images
Waiting in the zebra crossing

On the morning of Oct. 28, 2015, 12 pedestrians were struck by cars in the City of Toronto.

While some would say it's the result of a wet, grey day, this statistic follows an average of six pedestrians being hit each day, a stunningly high number that research indicates is set to increase as density intensifies and our population ages. Toronto is not alone. In the U.S., over 69,000 pedestrians were hit by vehicles in 2011. That's one injury every seven minutes. An additional 4,400 pedestrians were killed by vehicles over that same period.

Much debate in Toronto and elsewhere focuses on cities creating urban transport solutions -- how to move large numbers of people around over short periods of high-peak need. City arteries, whether roads, trains, or subways, form the basis of this, essentially as the architecture by which most of us move from one place to another. But the prevalence of pedestrian accidents highlights the collateral damage when walking is not considered as part of the urban transport conversation.

Improvements such as widened sidewalks and better street lighting are an important help, but conversely, adding more stop signs appears not to be. North America has an insatiable appetite for this form of vehicle control, yet studies indicate that with the prevalence of stop signs, drivers glide through them more often, while pedestrians become complacent, being hit as they mistakenly believe it is always safe to step into the road at a stop sign. A U.S. Department of Transportation report indicates that approximately half of all motorists come to a rolling stop and 25 per cent do not stop at all.

Experiments in Toronto and elsewhere to reduce traffic speeds on city streets are being explored. It is too early to know how much this may help reduce accidents of all kinds, though an AAA Foundation report in 2011 indicated that reducing the urban speed limit had only minimal impact on overall travel time but led to a measurable reduction in pedestrian accidents and their severity.

Pedestrian accidents are not a new problem. As far back as 1869, Mary Ward was killed by an experimental steam car in Ireland and is recorded as the first known person to be killed by a motor vehicle. In the early days of urban planning for vehicles, the automobile and tram ran side by side across wide-open tracks with little or no marking or signage for either vehicle or pedestrians. It was the wild west of urbanism. In fact, by the end of the 1920s, more than 200,000 Americans had been killed by cars, almost all of them pedestrians. In some respects we've come a long way since then, certainly in terms of driver safety with disc brakes, seat belts, airbags and lane warning technology. It would seem though that too little investment has been made in protecting pedestrians.

As in so many areas of our lives, Google, Apple and an array of tech start-ups may turn out to have a plan to help, with autonomous cars that recognize obstacles such as humans, and reaction times far quicker and more predictable than we are capable of. But for now, the onus is on municipalities to legislate, encourage and even incentivize safer pedestrian traffic, and for drivers and walkers to take greater personal responsibility for themselves.

As pedestrians, wearing reflective clothing at night, keeping to sidewalks and crossing only at designated crossings are simple but important safety tips. And as Dustin Hoffman famously did in the iconic film Midnight Cowboy, it's also okay on occasion to scream, "I'm walking here!"


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