Last week, Toronto Police Service (TPS) posted photos to Facebook depicting officers using radar guns on a multi-use path that cuts through a park. One officer posed with a grin next to a “Slow down! Max 20 km/h” sign.
The post has since been deleted, but a tweet from local news outlet 6ixBuzzTV which shared the photos quickly drew disbelief and frustration from many in Toronto, a city where government has only tepidly, and recently, embraced bike lanes.
Patrick Cameron was one of them. Cameron’s younger brother, Nick, was killed in March 2018 by careless driving, a leading and increasingly loosely policed threat to safety in the city. Cameron responded to the pictures on Twitter: “My little brother was killed by a guy who was texting and driving. TPS barely does traffic enforcement. I can’t describe how angry this useless waste of time exercise makes me.”
The photos struck a nerve for Cameron. “The likelihood of someone getting killed by a cyclist is the same as getting struck by lightning, or less,” he said. Fatal pedestrian-cyclist accidents are so rare there is little data available. Only one person has been killed by a cyclist in Toronto in recent memory.
Cameron said his brother’s death was caused by institutional failures in city council and the police, both of whom he said have failed to take responsibility for traffic safety in the city.
In their November 2019 agenda, TPS released figures which indicated that their rate of traffic enforcement dropped to an all-time low in 2018, despite the city’s Vision Zero Road Safety Plan entering its fourth year. Midtown Toronto community advocacy group Avenue Road Safety Coalition says that the campaign has had no impact on safety in the city, citing a slight increase in pedestrian deaths since the campaign began.
Cycling safety advocates in Toronto say they are tired of facing slow responses from the city and gaslighting from the city’s police. While traffic enforcement rates have dropped steadily, the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed by drivers in the city hit a 10-year high in 2018. In a Medium post titled “It’s a Slaughter on Toronto-area Roads,” cyclist Joey Schwartz wrote that he had never installed so many ghost bikes—memorial bicycles installed at spots where cyclists have died—in such a short time.
The photos and controversy come on the heels of a study of 12 U.S. cities that found separated bike lanes resulted in safer streets for cyclists, pedestrians, and drivers combined. Compared to metro Europe, North American cities continue to lag in developing safe green transportation infrastructure, including bike lanes, in response to the climate crisis. Recent research from two U.S. universities showed that over a 28-year period, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, and the U.K. had reduced pedestrian fatalities by between 61 percent to 69 percent, while the U.S. accomplished only 36 percent fewer deaths. As in Toronto, the research showed that pedestrian fatalities increased in the U.S. between 2010 and 2018. Advocates in the U.K. even declared that American-made vehicles were responsible for a similar rise in pedestrian deaths.
Michael Longfield, interim executive director of cycling non-profit Cycle Toronto, said that a recent poll conducted by the David Suzuki Foundation found that 84 percent of people across Toronto wanted the city to be doing more to make their streets safer. But cyclists aren’t a looming safety threat. “For a lot of people, seeing these photos and this little PR op seemed like a really terrible use of resources given that there’s still a lot of concerns about traffic violence in general.”
Longfield said that 2020 has seen more cycling infrastructure development in Toronto than any prior year. Despite this, though, some at city council remain opposed to cycling and pedestrian infrastructure—including Mark Grimes, councillor for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, who last year objected to the construction of new sidewalks in his ward.
A representative with Toronto Police Service’s Traffic Services said of the speed trap, “This was a 22 Division Community Response Unit (CRU) initiative responding to community complaints in conjunction with the local (councillor).” In a statement to VICE News, TPS media relations officer Caroline de Kloet wrote that “officers were there to increase awareness and educate people after a number concerns were raised by the community, including fellow cyclists, and a councillor. The speed radar was used purely for education and not enforcement. The officers received a positive response from residents.”
Grimes, in whose ward the photo op occurred, told VICE News that the exercise was an “educational campaign” in response to “hundreds of complaints” about speeding on multi-use trails. Grimes was unable to produce figures regarding the impact of speeding cyclists on street safety.
22 Division did not respond to requests for comment.
Dave Shellnutt, a Toronto cycling advocate and lawyer, called the police’s bike path exercise “an affront” in the face of a 66 percent decline in traffic enforcement from 2009 to 2018. “The idea that this is at all an attempt to do anything about road safety is laughable,” he said.
Shellnutt noted that on the same morning as the bike path exercise, a Porsche split in half and careened over the sidewalk in a high-speed crash near Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood. He said the exercise demonstrates a grave misunderstanding of public safety. “We’re in a pandemic, housing is a crisis, the opioid epidemic is spiking, we’ve got full Black and Indigenous communities feeling unsafe with a civil service,” he said. “We have huge issues to be dealing with and these guys are out here shooting radar guns at cyclists on a bike path.”
Shellnutt said that police claims that they don’t have the resources to enforce or expand on their road safety efforts cannot be true. “They have a billion dollars and it’s been going up every year,” he said. City Hall recently voted against a motion to cut the police budget, which was about $1.025 billion in 2019, by 10 percent in response to calls to defund police due to systemic racism.
Shawn Micallef, cofounder of Toronto’s Spacing magazine, said it seemed like police were “trolling” Torontonians.
“After the last few years in Toronto, it’s hard not to ascribe that feeling to it,” he said. “We’re definitely seeing the police actively stop enforcing traffic rules, and then lie about it. That is the culture of Toronto, where it feels like automobile drivers are untouchable.”
Micallef said that while there are legitimate concerns regarding cyclists’ speeds, applying the same tactics and resources to both vehicular and cycle traffic is illogical. “If the police say they have limited resources, and if you look at where the damage from both deaths and injuries is happening the most, it’s happening from automobile drivers,” he said.
This fact expands the legitimacy of recent calls to defund and abolish police services. “It’s time we started looking for other solutions,” said Shellnutt, who wondered why more cost-effective and safe measures like speed cameras aren’t favoured. “That’s a good alternative to an officer with a gun.”
Dr. Saadia Sediqzadah, a psychiatrist in Toronto and co-founder of Doctors For Defunding Police, said that the photo op represents a new level of policing. She said she’s concerned that the increase in cycling infrastructure in the city will result in new police tactics which would translate to increased surveillance and targeting of Black, Indigenous, and cyclists of colour.
“I worry that the darker the skin colour of the biker, the more likely they are to be pulled over, as we already know from literature of ‘driving while Black,’” Sediqzadah said. She noted that this policing should be replaced by more cost-effective community interventions and public health measures.
It was not long ago that then-mayor Rob Ford and his brother, now Ontario Premier Doug Ford, cancelled bike lanes and declared there was a “war on the car” as part of their anti-cyclist, pro-suburb, rhetoric. Given that 75 percent of Toronto cops don’t actually live in the city, it’s hard not to think that some of that attitude remains—that roads are meant for cars, and cyclists are a nuisance.
Meanwhile, Cameron said that since his brother’s death, he’s seen no meaningful improvements to traffic safety in the city.
“I’ve gotten no real sense that the mayor or his allies in city council are interested in doing anything other than the bear minimum as a PR exercise,” said Cameron.
Follow Luke Ottenhof on Twitter.
Update: This story was updated with additional information from Councillor Grimes’ response regarding the impact of speeding cyclists.