Skeletons in traffic there's a traffic light in my neighbourhood that I regard as more of a sick joke than a way to get to the other side of Dufferin. The east-west green makes a showing about as frequently as Halley's Comet, and is just as fleeting. This isn't just inconvenient - it's dangerous. It makes motorists turning onto Dufferin testy. Rather than waiting for pedestrians, they will drive slowly toward them, honking and swearing. These are my second least favourite people in the universe. My least favourite are the ones behind them who honk at the drivers in front for not running the pedestrians down. I've never understood this daily counselling to murder. But on Halloween, I found an explanation.
Remember the clay skeleton warriors in The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad? Maybe not. I'm technically too young to remember them myself. But I do, and it's because the animation, simplistic by today's standards, still looks better than many computer-generated effects. Though their gait, compared to the live actors', is stiff and halting, even that seems natural. They're skeletons, after all. No skin.
Motorists, on the other hand, have extra skin. If, as Marshall McLuhan famously theorized, our inventions are extensions of ourselves, then it's not hard to see the chassis of an automobile as a second skin. Hell, there's even a robust market for car cosmetics.
So when they encounter pedestrians, motorists first notice that lack of skin. They see the strange, halting gait (not the rolling motion they're accustomed to). They think, quite naturally, "Uh-oh, skeleton."
And unfortunately, many walkers become so. In 2003, 43 pedestrians were killed by automobiles here. In the same year, 44 Torontonians succumbed to dreaded SARS and 37 were killed by guns. SARS made us a global social leper, and guns have their very own police task force. If I were pedestrian deaths, I'd be feeling a bit jealous right now.
The only possible reason for the lack of hysteria over an annually recurring epidemic is that we've come to see car accidents as a given. If you live in a forest you have to deal with bears, and if you live in a city you have to deal with cars.
"Roads have been designed solely for motorists' comfort," muses Rhona Swarbrick, a founding member of Toronto's Pedestrian Planning Network (PPN), on this culture of car-coddling. "Now they even want to make our vehicles extensions of our living rooms. The extension of your living room used to be the street you lived on."
Speeding as killer is a pet issue of Swarbrick's. I made her acquaintance at a police services board meeting, where she took the force to task for its policy of discretionary enforcement of traffic offences.
She alleged that anyone caught speeding who was going 15km/h or less over the limit was given no demerits, only a fine. "The attitude seems to be that if you can afford it, do it," she said ruefully. While the chief denied there was any official kid-glove policy toward those only 15km/h over, he did acknowledge that all officers were given free rein to use "strategic enforcement."
Swarbrick, like many others, is unimpressed with municipal attempts to reduce pedestrian deaths. When former police board chair Alan Heisey brought forward a list of recommendations (including a proposal that motorists should be charged for not yielding to pedestrians) entitled Rights And Protections Of Pedestrians and asked the chief for a report, it came back titled Rights And Responsibilities Of Pedestrians.
And in 2003, the year of the deaths I cited earlier, the police started a blitz entitled Operation Pedsafe that mostly involved charging pedestrians with Highway Traffic Act offences. It's hard to turn this mentality around when planners cede road size to the auto makers.
"Car manufacturers design the specifications with no limitations," says Swarbrick. "City engineers have to accommodate the size of the vehicles that are out there. They have no choice."
Spacious traffic lanes are required for the likes of 18-wheelers and mammoth SUVs like Chevy's Suburban - the result of an arms race of ever more aggressive traffic. The PPN has suggested to traffic engineers that road widths should be reduced, but regulations stipulate that all new roads must be at least 8.5 metres wide to accommodate emergency vehicles.
Swarbrick sees this as working backwards. "Europe has much smaller fire trucks than we do," she says.
Their ancient cities are actually on a human scale.