Zombie pedestrians make for road kill in Toronto

TORONTO, Canada — The other day, I watched a very modern man crossing the street, blissfully oblivious to all that surrounded him.

It was at the corner of Queen Street West and Dovercourt Road, the bustling heart of Toronto’s trendy west end. From my vantage point, it wasn’t clear whether he knew the light was green: He stepped off the curb without looking up, eyes fixed on his BlackBerry, thumbs beating out a text, an iPod blaring music in his ears.

It was an act of incredible trust, if not stupidity, in a city where recently, it looked like open season on pedestrians.

In Toronto and its suburbs, 14 pedestrians were struck by vehicles and killed in a four-week period — the highest one-month total in a decade. In one incident, a 28-year-old mother was killed, while pushing her baby in a stroller, when a driver ran a red light. In another, a 38-year-old woman was killed while jaywalking.

In short, there was plenty of evidence for police officers to scold both drivers and pedestrians for being spaced out.

“Driving has become so desensitized,” Constable Hugh Smith told the Toronto Star, “with tinted windows, televisions, comfortable seats and gadgets that have to beep to tell us we're going to hit something. We don't even feel the road anymore.”

Another police officer blamed pedestrians who rely on traffic lights rather than paying attention to the metal on wheels around them.

“They’re walking around like zombies,” the officer said, referring to pedestrians, many glued to cell phones, in the city’s financial district. “Just look at them!”

Desensitized drivers and zombie pedestrians make for a lot of road kill.

Police decided it was time for a public education campaign. So officers blitzed the downtown core, handing out $50 tickets to jaywalkers. It’s telling that when they opted for a high-profile crackdown, police officers picked on pedestrians rather than drivers.

(Read about a similar anti-jaywalking campaign in Montreal.)

Toronto is a city where the car is king. Its politicians talk incessantly about being on the cutting edge of eco-culture. But no one dares discomfort drivers. Mayor David Miller, who doesn’t miss a chance to tout his progressive credentials, refuses to consider road tolls like those in London, where drivers pay a fee to enter the downtown core.

Miller made improving Toronto’s long-neglected public transit system a priority during his two terms in office, which end in November, when he retires. He fought hard for more funding from a sometimes stone-deaf provincial government. But he failed to do some simple things that would have helped, such as banning left hand turns on roads where streetcars operate. He prefers to leave crowded streetcars waiting behind lines of cars — inevitably filled with only the driver — making left turns.

Some months ago, he mounted the courage to propose putting a bike lane on Jarvis Street, a heavily used road that cuts north-south through downtown Toronto. Motorists immediately accused him of waging a “war on the car” — a slogan trotted out the minute proposals friendly to pedestrians or public transit are even hinted at.

Toronto City Council passed the proposal, but its implementation is uncertain. One of the main contenders campaigning for the mayor’s job has vowed to stop it if he wins. Another top contender wants a moratorium on bike lanes and more public debate about their need. They don’t dare risk being labeled unfriendly to motorists. The fact that Toronto has far fewer bike lanes than Montreal — 248 miles compared to 310 miles — doesn’t trouble them in the slightest.

Last week, similar concerns erupted when city council proposed a temporary bike lane on University Avenue, another heavily used downtown street. The plan was defeated by one vote.

Incredibly, the city councilor who cast the deciding vote, Paula Fletcher, said she supported the bike path but in a moment of electronic confusion, pushed the button that cast a No vote rather than a Yes.

I bet she was distracted by her BlackBerry.