Q. In Toronto, why did the Chicken cross the road?
A. Nobody knows – it was struck and killed.
Nine pedestrians died in the past eight days in Toronto, all struck by vehicles. Ranging in age from their mid-20s to senior citizens, their deaths are the only common thread tying them together.
In the Toronto Star, urban issues writer Christopher Hume argues that Toronto is a city that caters to drivers, leaving pedestrians out in the cold. “The truth is that for the past 60 years we have been building cities for cars, not people,” Hume writes. “The width of streets, speed limits, as well as the size and design of cars themselves are all carefully calibrated to suit drivers.”
In the wake of these pedestrian deaths, a buzz has been brewing about the safety of walking the streets of Toronto. It’s almost funny, in a morbid way, that just a few years ago, Toronto endured what was then known affectionately as “The Summer of The Gun.” (another great name for a band, by the way.) Back then, in the halcyon days of 2005, walking down the street in this city would get you shot and killed, if you believed the news. Fast-forward a few years to the first days of a new decade, and once again, walking will get you killed in the city of Toronto, this time by errant drivers
Now, a growing number of people are clamouring for a solution. Citizens, journalists, tweeters, bloggers, and even President Obama, are falling over themselves to make sense of these deaths.
The nine pedestrians killed over eight days has stopped just short of being labeled an epidemic. Guess what? It’s not. In fact, I argue it’s nothing more than mere coincidence. Blasphemy, you say? Read on.
Some may say that to call it a coincidence is asinine, and there is no way cosmic forces surrounded the city of Toronto in such a way that nine people just happened to die in eight days, all in the same manner. To those people, I recommend a book by the name of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. (click on the link to check it out, I’m not a book reviewer.)
The problem, they write, is that in a city with a high population (such as, oh, I don’t know, say… Toronto?), it’s inevitable that certain occurrences will happen with higher frequency within any one-year period. This can be related to gun deaths, cancer clusters, broken watermains, and even pedestrian deaths.
The results of these inexplicable outbreaks may be products of random fluctuations, with the public insisting that they could not have possibly occurred by chance. However, Thaler and Sunstein argue that people confuse random fluctuations with casual patterns, and therein lies the problem.
Our ability to judge these events as nothing more than a series of coincidences is clouded by the fact that people “often detect patterns that they think have great meaning but in fact are just due to chance.” Thaler and Sunstein continue, “You might flip a coin three times, see it come up heads every time, and conclude that there is something funny about the coin. But the fact is that if you flip any coin a lot, it won’t be so unusual to see three heads in a row.”
What does it all mean? It means that Toronto’s roads are no more or less dangerous than they were two weeks ago and that there is no “epidemic” of pedestrians being struck and killed by vehicles. It means, for better or for worse, that things happen. Sometimes, it’s best to deal with that fact and move on, rather than get on a soapbox and start screaming for change.
In his article, Hume asks: “So why aren’t we talking about lowering speed limits, increasing penalties or narrowing city streets? Why aren’t we discussing ways to improve crosswalks, intersections and road signage generally? And why aren’t we trying to change a culture that quietly condones putting pedestrians’ lives at risk?”
All great questions, all deserving of honest answers. But regardless of what happens to the future of pedestrians and drivers in the city of Toronto, people will continue to die on the roads and the sidewalks. Sometimes more often than seems possible. But such is life… a string of coincidences our brains struggle to logically explain.
If you think there’s something to this, feel free to let me know. If you think I’m a blasphemous human being with no care or consideration toward the victims I mention above, feel free to let me know as well.