It's tough being a pedestrian in Toronto. When did two feet get such short shrift?
By Ben Bull
Published September 05, 2010
It's Tuesday morning and I'm on my way to work. The traffic is bad today. I'm downtown, staring at the tail lights and breathing in the fumes. Gotta love commuting. Up ahead I see that my route is blocked: 'Get out of the way!'
Where did all these people come from? I wonder. Doesn't anyone stay at home? All of a sudden I see a gap. Go! Go! Go! I speed up and veer left.
"Hey watch it!"
That was close. The balding Dr Phil look-a-like sweeps past me and shoots me a glance. Good morning to you, too.
I zigzag left, right, left-and-right. This is exhausting. The asphalt feels like it's folding itself around me, I can barely breathe...
Now, what's this? I skid to a halt.
I reverse a couple of inches, smack my hand on my forehead and trudge off once again.
Half a block later the lights block my way. I stare at the cars streaming across my path: Green Light Envy.
I'm sure this is a universal condition. The same sort of feeling you get when you're at the doctor and someone else's name gets called.
'It's my turn' their expression says, as they look back at you in mock sympathy.
The lights change. Go!
Holy crap...all these people. What's this bloke doing here? Wait!, What?... Smack!
I rub my elbow and help the old man scoop up his umbrella. He looks a little disoriented.
"Are you OK?"
"OK have a good one."
It's tough being a pedestrian in Toronto. I suppose it's a nice problem to have - all those feet on the street certainly make for a lively city - but really, have you seen the space they give us to get around? I often wonder, with all these debates about traffic flow and new bikes lanes - when did two feet get such short shrift?
The sidewalk running through the heart of my neighbourhood - Toronto's Esplanade - is 6-7 feet wide. It's like a promenade. It's a good job too. The strip is always teeming with people, on their way to the St Lawrence Market, the Distillery or one of the co-ops or town houses that run along the side.
But the Esplanade is an exception. Most of Toronto's sidewalks - as in most other cities - are barely four feet across. That's enough room for three people to walk side by side, but not enough space for two couples to pass each other unencumbered.
When I first returned to Toronto, about four and a half years ago now, I found it difficult to get around. Coming from Hamilton I just wasn't used to sidewalk congestion. What's the protocol for avoiding rapidly approaching pedestrians? I wondered. Do I dodge out of the way at the last minute...? Steer gradually to the side? Or stand tall and hold my ground?
I tried all of these approaches and one time of another and could never seem to smooth my ride.
I remember one unfortunate encounter just outside the market. An old woman pushing a shopping cart suddenly steered across my path. I jumped to the side, hoping to avoid the inevitable pain of shin-on-steel contact, just as she herself changed direction once again. She clattered right into me - or rather her cart did.
As I rubbed my ankles the woman shrugged, looked me up and down and flung her cart back across my shins. "Stupid Man."
Our thin sliver sidewalks make no sense to me. Why is it OK to give cars 80% of the roadway while we pedestrians can't even walk two abreast in both directions? On a typical rush hour in Toronto a busy downtown street shifts thousands of pedestrians an hour. Yet we are all fighting for the same limited allotment of asphalt.
Have you ever tried piling out of Union Station at a quarter to nine? I used to do it every day. Huddling at the Front and Yonge crosswalk waiting for 10-20 cars to cruise across while we, 50 to 60 pedestrians crowd along the curb waiting for the little man...
Something is seriously wrong with this picture.
Of course other cities, especially European ones, give walkers a little more loving. Many English towns now feature pedestrianized cores, and I've yet to try out the newly designed Times Square - but it looks great. Plenty of room to jostle around.
Here in Toronto at election time there is little to no talk of pedestrian issues. Bike lanes yes. Car congestion - sure. But walkers woes? Nada.
Maybe it's because we don't complain. Maybe it's because we're too busy massaging our shins, dodging on-coming scooters, or just trying to keep our feet on the ground.
Maybe it's time we walkers got a little more of the asphalt. Hell - I think I might just stroll on up to City Hall right now and complain!
Now - where did I put my helmet...
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