Toronto pedestrian deaths mark a 'crisis' in this city, says Jennifer Keesmaat

Jennifer Keesmaat is warning that this city faces a crisis when it comes to the number of pedestrians killed on its streets.

Transportation manager considering breaking up long blocks

Toronto's former chief planner says the city needs to do a better job to protect pedestrians. Here, police shut down the scene of a pedestrian fatality near Finch and Islington in early February. (Chris Langenzarde/CBC)

Toronto's former chief planner is warning that this city faces a crisis when it comes to the number of pedestrians killed on its streets.

Jennifer Keesmaat urged city hall to make protecting those on foot its top priority while moderating a panel discussion at the University of Toronto Thursday that also featured the city's general manager of transportation, Barbara Gray. 

There have already been eight pedestrian deaths in the city this year, which prompted a safety blitz from Toronto police. However, Keesmaat is blaming many of the deaths on how the city's roads are set up.

"Our streets are unsafe," Keesmaat told CBC Toronto after the talk.

"Children and elderly people ... are at risk going about their daily lives because of the design of our streets. It's something we can change. It's within our power to change it."

Gray said the city is eyeing changes to what she calls problematic areas, noting the goal is to make fixes before there's a fatality. Streets where there are long sections without pedestrian crossings, which are common in Toronto's inner-suburbs, are of particular concern. 

"We have to consider how we can break those blocks up," Gray said.

Jeff Risom, a Copenhagen-based urban designer with the firm Gehl, was also on hand for the discussion. He suggested while Vision Zero — the city initiative aimed at reducing traffic-related deaths — is a good starting point, it's also "completely unambitious."

Risom said what marks success is people being able to get around safely, regardless of how they choose to travel, and also feeling comfortable and free to stop in at a shop or pull up a seat in an urban space for a while. 

"Our streets need to be providing value ... they need to be the economic life blood of our cities. And, of course, they shouldn't kill us," he said.

However, Keesmaat said safety does need to come first in Toronto, arguing until people can safely cross the street, "I don't really give a s**t about the quality of the benches."


John Rieti

Senior producer

John started with CBC News in 2008 as a Peter Gzowski intern in Newfoundland, and holds a master of journalism degree from Toronto Metropolitan University. As a reporter, John has covered everything from the Blue Jays to Toronto city hall. He now leads a CBC Toronto digital team that has won multiple Radio Television Digital News Association awards for overall excellence in online reporting. You can reach him at