The dominance of car culture is deadly

Why should we tolerate the status quo when there have been 19 pedestrian deaths in Montreal this year?

With a little over a month to go before the year comes to an end, 19 pedestrians have been killed in Montreal so far. According to SPVM statistics, there were 15 pedestrian deaths in the city in both 2016 and 2017. Two cyclists were killed in 2016, four in 2017 and three in 2018. While no cycling fatalities took place in 2019 to my knowledge, it’s been a deadly year for pedestrians.

The latest death was only a few weeks ago, when an 89-year-old man was hit by a car at a busy intersection in NDG, an area that residents have complained for years is unsafe because of a confusing lighting configuration.

Interviewed by CTV News after the incident, Daniel Lambert of the NDG Association of Pedestrians and Cyclists said, “People make mistakes. Vulnerable road users make mistakes, pedestrians and cyclists, particularly seniors and young people — and people shouldn’t die or be seriously injured because they’ve made a mistake.”

This. So much this.

While human error is often to blame in many road accidents, we have somehow convinced ourselves these serious accidents or fatalities are unavoidable and simply the inevitable price of cars and people co-existing closely in public spaces. It doesn’t have to be this way. We should be able to make mistakes while driving, biking or walking, and have the expectation that our roads and infrastructure are designed to absorb these mistakes, so a momentary distraction or reduced visibility doesn’t end up costing someone’s life.

In a recent Globe and Mail column titled “Why is it okay that cars kill?” Denise Balkissoon writes: “This is why I don’t call car crashes ‘accidents’: the word obscures how many are entirely preventable.”

The City of Montreal is committed to being part of the Vision Zero Action Plan with the goal of reducing traffic deaths and serious injuries on city roads. The plan, which was originally conceived in Sweden in 1997 and has since gained popularity across North America and Europe, is a collaborative campaign helping communities reach their goals of Vision Zero. That means eliminating all traffic fatalities and severe injuries while increasing safe, healthy, equitable mobility for all. New York City implemented the project in 2014 and has already seen a reduction in fatalities.

As a former and still-occasional driver, a current public transit user, an avid pedestrian and a recreational cyclist, I welcome any and all measures that improve safety on our streets. Earlier this year, the city announced it was reducing the speed limits on many of the city’s main streets to 40 km/h and residential streets to 30 km/h.

Last week, the city announced that, as of 2022, all traffic lights in Montreal will be equipped with electronic countdowns and pedestrian signals will be added to all intersections with traffic lights. Most importantly, four to six seconds will be added to crossing times to ensure pedestrians have time to cross the street. The city also announced that $1-million is being spent to hire more school crossing guards and that pedestrians near hospitals, CLSCs, schools and daycares will be given extra time to cross. Mayor Valerie Plante called it a “paradigm change” and that’s exactly how we all must see it. Pedestrian safety affects us all because — whether we drive, ride a bike, take the metro, we are all pedestrians — and this blasé car culture that often dominates how we see public spaces is making us all unsafe.

As someone who has an aging, slightly slower, slightly less-alert mother who no longer drives but is an avid walker and loves to get around on foot for her shopping and socializing, this announcement is welcome news. I also can’t help but think of my sister, trying to navigate the city with a fidgety, easily distracted, not-always-cooperative two-year-old in tow. Every time I attempt to cross intersections where the countdown is obscenely short, I worry about seniors and people with limited mobility. Sometimes I can barely make it across in the allotted time given, so I have no idea how a shuffling senior, a person with a disability, or a parent with kids make do without stressing every step of the way. If we’re building cities for everyone, we need to remember that we must design them for everyone.

Every time such measures are announced I see the annoyed comments from the predictable folks, lamenting that this administration is the car’s natural enemy or that they want to favour cyclists above everyone else. First of all, it’s unhelpful to categorize people as only drivers or only public transit commuters or only cyclists, since most people are often a combination of all those things at any given time, depending on their living and working situation, their childcare needs or even the season.

Sometimes I see people declare in a resigned tone that speed reduction won’t do anything to curb deaths, despite numerous scientific studies pointing to the exact opposite. I often see Montreal drivers huff and puff and sanctimoniously declare that they’re the ones paying for the roads and they should be able to use them as they see fit.

The truth of the matter is that general taxes paid by all taxpayers cover most of the cost of building and maintaining highways. People who walk and cycle pay their fair share for use of the transportation system. Most walking and cycling take place on local streets and roads that are primarily paid for through property taxes and other general local taxes. In addition, walking and cycling inflict virtually no damage on roads and streets and take up only a tiny fraction of the road space occupied by vehicles. A study by Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG) found that “cyclists and pedestrians likely pay far more in general taxes to facilitate the use of local roads and streets by drivers than they receive in benefits from federal infrastructure investment paid for through the gas tax.”

The simple truth is that here in North America car culture has dominated everything and this attitude has enabled people behind the wheel to be careless and selfish and often speed through densely populated areas in their gas-guzzling, oversized SUVs just to shave a few minutes off their daily commute. What’s everyone’s damn hurry and why has car culture made their needs more important than everyone else’s?

I remember the very first time I visited Hamburg, Germany. The minute I approached the crosswalk, every single car stopped. I wasn’t even on the crosswalk yet, and every vehicle in the vicinity just stopped… and let me cross. As a Montrealer who’s used to Quebec drivers treating crosswalks as a helpful suggestion and nothing more, I was in total shock. I remained in shock for the duration of my trip, because the experience kept repeating itself. It’s proof that education campaigns can help raise generations of people who prioritize pedestrians, and aren’t so enamoured with car culture.

We need municipal, provincial, and federal administrations who understand that roads belong to all of us and can promote a multi-faceted approach that combines smart and inclusive road design, effective enforcement of traffic laws and improved road safety education. Quebec’s new legislation that requires drivers convicted of drunk driving twice in 10 years to get an ignition breathalyzer for life is also a solid legal move. Driving is a privilege; not a right.

Here in North America, we have somehow bought into this silly idea that roads and public infrastructure primarily belong to cars. As a result, drivers think they have more of a right to them than pedestrians or cyclists.

They don’t. ■

Read more editorials like this one on car culture by Toula Drimonis here.