A brief history of Toronto’s nasty habit of running over toddlers in cars

Traffic at a standstill on the junction of Bay Street and Queen Street West in Toronto, 1959, during one minute of silence to remember the 81 people killed in traffic accidents in the city the previous year. Image: Fox Photos/Getty Images.

It seems every day, another pedestrian or cyclist is injured or killed in Toronto. In this respect the city is living a historical déjà vu: interwar Toronto (1919-1939) witnessed similar numbers of walkers and bikers, especially children, dying on its streets by the same cause: cars.

Yet, like their earlier cousins, today’s Torontonians hear the same platitudes voiced by police and community leaders: cyclists and pedestrians must actively defend their own self-interests. In other words, cyclists and pedestrians must ultimately construct ways to protect themselves — by themselves — on thoroughfares full of dangerous motor vehicles.

How odd that in 2018 the best Toronto’s policymakers and enforcers can do is to rehash a century-old idea that in practice failed catastrophically in the past? Historical fatalities involving children give us a glimpse into Toronto’s remarkably unimaginative approach to the street.

Toronto’s leaders alone created this intolerable street-policy circumstance. Their virtual indenture to the car since the 1910s effectively renders them policy-impotent.

Banning cars is one way to ensure pedestrian and cyclist safety on city streets. Image: Andrew Gook/Unsplash.

The only method to guarantee pedestrian and cyclist safety on streets currently dominated by motor vehicles would be to prohibit automobiles. Since this idea is inconceivable, what is left for municipal leaders to say or do — except lamely urge people to be careful?

Torontonians have understood the threat to civic life posed by automobilisation since the 1910s. They learned the excruciating effect of unforgiving motor vehicles on children, as they watched their own children die on the very streets in front of their homes.

At the end of the First World War, children were losing their lives by the dozens at the wheels of motorists (90 between 1919 and 1921). Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, it was common knowledge that Toronto’s children were imperiled.

The city’s newspapers almost daily, and certainly gruesomely, described how motor vehicles bruised and lacerated the “little tots of the street,” broke their bones and shattered their skulls, flayed and crushed them to death. Dragged and battered in their ancestral playground — the street — Toronto’s besieged preschoolers, many just three years old, had no recourse. Protection by government policy never happened.

Changes from horses to cars

This motor-caused trauma arose from a dramatic change to the Victorian street and its social functions. Victorian Toronto’s streets formed organically around walkers, leisurely omnibuses and plodding horse traffic. Here flowered a remarkably integrated system of slow-moving outdoor living, incorporating the whole street, façade to façade, sidewalk, curb, gutter and roadway.

True, bicyclists “scorched” through newly asphalted fin de siécle streets, sometimes running down adults and children in the first instances of modernised hit-and-run crime, but for the overwhelming majority, the street was safe. By 1920, with booming motor vehicle ownership and traffic, pedestrian, bicycle and automobile collisions became commonplace.

Automobiles raced through intersections, drove on both sides of the road, challenged streetcars and passed them as riders disembarked. They jumped curbs and collided with walkers (and buildings). They raced trains at level crossings, frequently operated erratically and, of course, cut off and bumped cyclists.

Crucially, the time-space compression of fast-moving traffic was difficult to assess for both pedestrian and driver, and both — but most especially children — struggled to adjust to the new culture of the street.

A staged image from the Ontario Safety League campaign for pedestrian safety in 1923, showing examples of improper behaviours by pedestrians and cars. Image: City of Toronto Archives.

Compounding the circumstances, foot traffic escalated as the population swelled with hundreds of thousands of opportunity-seeking migrants. Multitudes awaited public transit, paraded to schools, churches and stores, and congested sidewalks.

The consequent crisis of pedestrians and automobiles was inevitable. And neither the city nor the province had any idea how to stop a person from walking in front of a moving car, or how to prevent a motor vehicle from hitting a pedestrian.

‘The chariot of prosperity’

The real problem from a policy perspective was the automobile’s economic significance. Its value was obvious to all, particularly to Toronto’s politicians and business people. As the “perfect machine,” it was “the chariot of prosperity,” and quickly “achieved its rightful prerogative over all other methods” of transportation.

“The king of vehicles,” the Globe wrote, “the motor-driven car, has won its place in the civilised world”. That this paragon of civility fomented lethal conflict with pedestrians, including kids playing tag or chasing butterflies, was a paradox to be ignored.

So what did Toronto’s policymakers do to stop cars from killing children on the streets? Nothing.

Deputations to and motions in City Council (in 1920 and 1928 respectively) to ban motor vehicles on streets where children played were unsuccessful. The result: every year between 1927 and 1934, dozens of toddlers died horribly in the streets.

In 1934, after three consecutive years of unconscionable fatalities — 30 toddlers per year — Ontario’s highways minister, Leopold MacCaulay, exclaimed that he could not “help but shudder at... the needless mangling of little ones.”

Ironically misunderstanding his role in the policy solution, MacCaulay believed it “would seem entirely unnecessary to ask [drivers] to protect” these children. “The instinct of humanity should be sufficient,” he continued, “but these figures prove it is not.”

Thus, the only ersatz policy ever devised to prevent people and cyclists from injury and death on automobilised roads was the invocation of self-preservation. This included committing preschoolers, whose crime was to innocently play on calamitously speeded-up streets, to “the necessity of guarding against accidents by abstaining from contributory negligence,” as the Ontario Safety League put it.

Look both ways

For as long as we can remember we have looked both ways before crossing the road — this is the only policy in the municipal arsenal to prevent people from being hit by cars. It is offered with a predilection to blame non-automobilers for inattention to their own safety.

Do cars matter more than people in Toronto? Image: Arturo Castaneyra/Unsplash.

Of course, we know automobiles are the ultimate cause — but just as “guns don’t kill people; people kill people,” so too cars don’t kill people; drivers kill people. Apparently, like the gun, the car itself is unimpeachable.

Pedestrians and cyclists know how to save lives in Toronto in 2018: ban automobiles from the places where we live. This cannot happen today for the same reasons it could not happen a century ago: automobiles matter more than pedestrians.

Thus, death and injury are ineluctable externalities of the car’s modern beneficence. Just as the City of Toronto wouldn’t enact policy to save the lives of the blameless and darling toddlers who fell by the hundreds a century ago, it will do nothing to protect adult bicyclists and pedestrians, regarded by many as urban pests.

The Conversation

Phillip Gordon Mackintosh, Associate Professor of Geography, Brock University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.