A european-style experiment in controlled traffic chaos is being planned for Toronto, courtesy of a proposal for a Union Station rethink. Alliance Architects partner John van Nostrand says the aim is to create a healthy dose of roadway confusion and tip the pedestrian-car imbalance toward those travelling on foot by narrowing of Front to two lanes from the current four, abolishing lane markers and blending sidewalk and road in a continuous sweep of paving stones from building to building, demarcated only by bollards.
All of which is meant to encourage pedestrians to cross at any point along the way and, in turn, force drivers to slow down and negotiate with pedestrians.
“Confusion,” says van Nostrand, “is what slows things down.”
But isn’t the most important ingredient in this “confusion” – namely, jaywalking – prohibited by law?
We all do it. We cross the street in the middle of the block wherever it’s convenient as soon as there’s a break in traffic. We have a nagging feeling that we’re doing something wrong.
The fact is, it’s legal – mostly. The Ontario Highway Traffic Act (HTA) says nothing about pedestrians crossing the street in the middle of a block where there’s no traffic light, crosswalk or stop sign.
Explains Constable Lee Bishop of the traffic services division of the Toronto Police Services, if it’s not in the HTA, it’s allowed. Without a specific statute, by default, common law simply stipulates that cars and pedestrians “exercise due care” in such circumstances.
The only significant obligation in the HTA for those crossing mid-block is that, if there is a traffic signal or crosswalk close by, pedestrians have to use it. But the act doesn’t specify the distance in question, so it remains a matter of judgment.
This kind of ambiguity, however, makes officials uncomfortable, especially in a large city where there is a lot of pedestrian-motorist interaction. All of the municipalities in the old Metropolitan Toronto passed bylaws specifying that pedestrians crossing where there is no traffic control must yield the right-of-way to vehicles.
In other words, you shouldn’t leave the curb mid-block if a car has to stop to let you by.
As a result of these laws, explains Bishop, “the onus is on the pedestrian to make sure it’s safe to cross.” These bylaws have not yet been amalgamated, so the fines vary wildly.
For most of the old cities, it’s $90, but for old Metro roads it’s only $8.75 which means you can be fined 10 times more for interfering with traffic on a residential road than on Bloor.
Crossing mid-block has the potential to be dangerous, of course. But Toronto accident statistics show that far more pedestrians are hit at intersections where there is traffic control than at “uncontrolled” locations.
If it’s legal – sort of – and not inherently dangerous, why does the term “jaywalking” exist, and why do we feel that crossing away from an intersection is somehow wrong?
Pedestrian activist Janice Etter provides some historical background. “Jay” was once a pejorative term for a country person, who might come to the city and wander across the street willy-nilly with no understanding of urban traffic culture.
When cars first came on the scene, the pedestrian was seen as predominant. J. P. Whitney, the premier of Ontario, said in 1910, “It is not the pedestrian who must get out of the way of the automobile, but the automobile that must get out of the road of the pedestrian.”
But as the number of vehicles rapidly expanded, the purpose of roads came increasingly to be seen as moving the motorized. Unregulated crossing on foot, wherever, came to be seen as unruly, unsophisticated and unsafe.
Although the city now claims to encourage pedestrianism, the transportation services division’s recent City Routes newsletter makes no mention of the right to mid-block forays, instead pushing pedestrians to “cross at traffic signals, crosswalks and stop signs on busy roads.”
Mid-block crossing is safe as long as you obey the law and wait for a break in traffic. So my advice is, do it whenever you want. It will remind drivers that the street is a shared amenity and push them to slow down.
Go ahead, stride across the street with pride, not guilt. It’s your right, and you’re making the city better.
Dylan Reid is an associate editor of Spacing magazine.