Register Sunday | May 26 | 2024

The Walking Man

The city as a perpetual work in progress

They say we spend six months of our lives waiting at red lights. I recently discovered an even more astonishing corollary to this axiom of urban living: the vast majority of those six months will be spent waiting at the intersection closest to home.

The lights closest to my last home, at the corner of Dupont and Christie Streets in Toronto, stood between me and all my daily destinations. For the three years I lived and worked there, I crossed the intersection on foot at least twice a day: to get groceries, go to the bank, pick up a movie, have a cup of coffee, buy beer, wander north of the tracks to my favourite park. They stopped me twice every trip, once headed out and once on the way home. On big errand days, they dinged me eight, maybe ten times.

The seconds added up quickly. The lights at Dupont and Christie take thirty seconds to change in either direction, extended to thirty-five seconds for east–west traffic during peak hours. It’s true that my wait was often less than thirty seconds, depending on where I was headed and at what point in the signal’s timing cycle I arrived at the corner. It’s also true that late at night, when the coast was clear, I tended to ignore the signal completely. Still, by my calculations, in only three years I logged at least thirty-five hours of waiting.

Thirty-five hours, one full workweek, at one corner or the other, merely waiting for the light to change. It gets worse: while I waited, I was indifferent to everything. My street corner was filled with the sounds of conversations, vehicles idling and revving, and trains on the tracks running parallel to Dupont—all of this flowed in one ear and out the other. I paid no mind to the telephone, cable and electrical wires overhead. I was equally unaware of the underground water, sewer and gas networks. I could not remember any of the cars that passed through the intersection any more than I could remember the faces of people who crossed my path. I became so familiar with my intersection that, through the miracle of pattern recognition, I was able to ignore all the static scenery along with much of the dynamic movement. The bustle of the city reduced to the faintest background drone, I concentrated solely on the rantings of my inner dialogue.

What I was aware of during all those hours was the electronic interlocutor that stood between me and the other side of the street. I was fixated on the orange Raised Right Hand, waiting for little white Walking Man to appear. Then again, I didn’t really think about him either.

And so these spells of absent-minded reflection led me to collide with the revelation of my own oblivion: I had completely internalized the thousands upon thousands of tons of concrete, asphalt, plastic, wiring, steel and stone that made up the grid that surrounded me, confined me, directed my movement and influenced my behaviour every time I walked out my door.

Oblivion soon morphed into obsession. How had I managed to take such a massive edifice and swallow it whole? Late one night, emboldened by wine, I spent the better part of an hour with my ear pressed against the grey signal-controller-box on the southwest corner, listening for any hint of an audible click whenever Raised Right Hand switched over to Walking Man. I wanted to get to know him better. I crouched down to eavesdrop near the bottom. I perched on tip-toes to snoop near the top. I went round to overhear on either side—nothing. People in their cars stopped, stared and chuckled. A guy in a white sports car rolled down his window to toss an insult my way, but my behaviour was so odd that words failed him. He turned his attention back to the road and, realizing there was no one else around, ran the red with a shit-eating grin on his face.


There is nothing particularly unique about the Dupont and Christie intersection. Dupont Street—named for nineteenth-century political scion George Dupont Wells—is classified as a “major arterial” and handles enough east–west commuter traffic during peak hours to make city officials thankful, but not enough to make them worry too much about excess volume. Dupont and Christie, however, is part of a greater whole, a four-corner sprocket in the city’s vast, crowded grid.

On August 22, 2000, two employees from the City of Toronto’s Traffic Data Centre and Safety Bureau came to Dupont and Christie to count vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians. What they found was that, while the intersection appeared to be breaking even, it was in fact changing in ways that threatened its ability to function. A total of 17,739 cars and trucks flowed through between 7:30 am and 6:00 pm, down since the 1993 tally of 18,252. But of the vehicles headed south on Christie Street, 901 turned left onto Dupont, up from the previous count of 797. It was proof of a shopping invasion: in 1996 a big box Loblaws opened on the northeast corner, creating a new wave of cars from upscale neighbourhoods to the north turning left on their way to the parking lot. Since the left-turn lane runs the length of only two to three cars, the extra 104 vehicles per day meant that the lineup was now regularly spilling over into neighbouring lanes.

More remarkable still was the growth in pedestrian traffic. Thanks to Loblaws—along with the café, Blockbuster franchise, design furniture showroom, custom drapery seamstress and upscale antique store that turned up in its wake—a total of 2,420 people crossed on foot that day, compared to 1,579 in 1993. These numbers appear worse on paper than on pavement. To the naked eye, the intersection seemed far from gridlocked. But Dupont and Christie proved to be an example of the many bad things that can happen when surplus pedestrians meet long left-turn queues. Both are forever playing beat the clock, trying to squeeze through as the seconds tick down, and each gets in the other’s way. A motorist trying to make a quick left on the yellow is stopped short by a pedestrian making a late crossing; the light turns red, and motorist is then trapped in the middle of the intersection; motorist, wanting to hurry pedestrian’s progress, nudges forward into the crosswalk; pedestrian, miffed, stands still and glares at motorist; a bleating chorus of horns fills the intersection.

Such stalemates usually don’t last long, but a delay of even a few seconds can disrupt the driving rhythm of one commuter who is used to hassle-free passage. His happy morning cadences knocked askew, he becomes determined to reset them by making good time over the next two intersections. He becomes aggressive and cuts people off, they too turn irate, and a thousand tiny cruelties are perpetuated throughout the grid. Even without gridlock, there is grip-lock: motorists’ silent throttling of the steering wheel as they elbow their way through city streets, and pedestrians’ clenched fists and frazzled nerves as they forge through the battle zone of the crosswalk. Torontonians’ relationship to their infrastructure seems to be crumbling faster than the infrastructure itself. Obeying the signals—stopping, waiting your turn, minding the lines on the pavement and all that—is the most basic social contract we have. The more clogged our streets become, the more we need that contract, and the less inclined we are to honour it. Everyone is trying to steal an ounce of time, or space, or both, squeezing through on the red or jumping the gun on the green.

And standing in the middle of all this rapacious recklessness? Walking Man, the grid’s human face. Tempers flare and preventable accidents unfold before him every day, and he is powerless to do anything. He cannot intervene, he cannot mediate disputes, he cannot warn people of imminent danger, he cannot utter anything beyond his idiosyncratic tweet-tweet and cuckoo for the blind. Imagine how he must feel. Walking Man deserves a big hug for shepherding people safely across the street. The reason he never gets his hug has less to do with his steel-encased display and more to do with the simple truth that he remains a stranger in the grid.

The concept of the urban gridiron goes back to the ancient Romans, the sum of their fetishistic fascinations with civil engineering and political order. Easy to map, navigate and subdivide, accommodating to both pedestrians and vehicles—whether powered by slaves, oxen or horses—and expeditious in the transport of foodstuffs throughout the city centre, the grid stood the test of time. In the eighteenth century, the gridiron model of city planning was widely used in the expansion and modernization of North American cities. Much of Toronto’s downtown grid was planned, and a large part of it built, in the 1790s by the city’s founder, John Graves Simcoe.

The epic of that grid is, in fact, published at our feet. The sidewalks lining the 114-year-old Dupont and Christie intersection are all stamped with that familiar oval indent, showing the year in which the concrete was poured and, in smaller type, the name of the contractor who poured it. There are half a dozen such stamps on the southwest corner alone, each with a different date. Most of the manhole covers have a date pressed into their steel, though some are so old they have lost their dates and their waffle ridges—one has been worn smooth as a skillet. The lamppost on the northwest corner is made of wood, old rusting staples embedded in it like buckshot. But Walking Man and Raised Right Hand are in remarkably better shape, like new growth sprouting from the branch of an old tree.

Walking Man’s appearance in Toronto is linked to the city’s population surge from two hundred thousand at the turn of the century to some two and a half million today. In the 1920s, there were perhaps ten thousand cars on Toronto roads. Today, about one million vehicles are registered to Torontonians; add to that the million more vehicles that enter city limits from surrounding areas every day. For the past twenty-five years, the grid has been crowded and congested, flirting with total gridlock, but never quite succumbing.

It’s been able to do this—even while most sidewalks, road widths and street corners appear to have barely changed over the past forty years—because a vast majority of the infrastructure has been continuously tweaked with new and improved materials and additional regulations. New pictograms were designed for all traffic signage, explaining edicts like “no left turn” without the use of words—a boon for new immigrants and anyone else lacking English literacy. Wide yellow backboards and LED technology have heightened the visibility of traffic signals, reducing the confusion and delays caused by the glare of the rising or setting sun. The improved chemical composition of industrial paints has led to increased durability and fluorescence. Polymers have added elasticity to street surfaces, allowing asphalt to stretch like a thick black rubber band beneath the heavy load of trucks, then return to its originial form. Elasticized fibres between sidewalk panels now absorb the forces of expansion and contraction, allowing sidewalks to last for decades. And Walking Man maintains order at the crossings, ensuring clear and expeditious passage for all.

The modern urban grid might qualify as the eighth wonder of the world. Quietly, invisibly, Toronto’s road network has expanded its capacity, shoehorning an ever-increasing number of people and vehicles into its narrow spaces. The history of its evolution is buried in municipal council minutes, committee reports, patent records for each incremental development and codified manuals such as the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Canada (MUTCD). The fourth and most recent edition of the MUTCD, published in 1998 and available from the Transportation Association of Canada for $445, explains where to paint crosswalk lines and the criteria for determining whether or not signal cycles require a left-turn phase, along with innumerable other details.

And lo, Figure B3-10 of the manual shows the acceptable vertical layout for Walking Man and his overlord, Raised Right Hand. It says nothing, alas, about when Walking Man replaced “WALK” as the preferred signal. A perusal through previous editions shows that Walking Man makes his first appearance in the second edition, published in the early 1970s, displacing without explanation his verbal-command predecessor. Like elasticized asphalt, Walking Man is an anonymous incremental addition to the grid. This is a travesty. Walking Man is the jolly chap inside the machine, the one who gives pedestrians a head start over cars. He deserves better.

Intersections incessantly bark orders. The curb is not merely a curb, it is a cement sentry: pedestrians on one side, it says, vehicles on the other. The white paint of the crosswalk tells us, as strenuously as paint possibly can, not to cross the street on even the slightest diagonal. Intersections tell cars to stop, wait, don’t cross this line, go, proceed with caution, slow down, hurry up. The city promises limitless freedom and prosperity, provided you do what the infrastructure says.

The grid’s control-freak tendencies probably explain my vexed relationship with Raised Right Hand, the most overbearing of the signs. In the language of transportation researchers, I am a “routine crosser”—that is, someone who knows a particular intersection much too well for my own good—and I have a much higher than average chance of “non-compliance.” I’ll say. The more I waited at Dupont and Christie the less I was willing to heed directions. Raised Right Hand commanded me to wait at the curb, but I always—always—took one step out onto the street and waited there, as if to give it the finger. If I arrived at the corner when Raised Right Hand was flashing, I always crossed anyway, often becoming one of those glaring pedestrians who block left-turning vehicles. I did it because I resented Raised Right Hand for controlling my access to Walking Man, the grid’s happy, permissive bon vivant.

My behaviour felt good because it was naughty, but it was also dangerous. More than that, it hindered efficiency. The signal system, more than any other development, has allowed the grid to increase its capacity; and it too has a long list of improvements great and small. As little as thirty years ago, all Toronto’s signals were electromechanical—a gear whirring in the control box flipping switches to change the light. Today, solid-state electronics have multiplied the available signal options to include left-turn cycles and their accompanying yellow intervals, synchronized timing of neighbouring intersections, varied cycle lengths at different times of day, and more.

The signal system is, of course, an alphabet of symbols, the MUTCD its Canadian dictionary. But like any language, “signalese” can be unclear and can even descend into slang. In theory, the amber light in North America means “clear the intersection.” In practice, it means slow down and prepare to stop. If, however, based on your current speed and proximity to the intersection, you are going too fast and will be unable to stop at the stop line, you should continue coasting through the intersection. If you are sitting in the middle of the intersection waiting to turn left, yellow means stick your nose out a little further into oncoming traffic.

Thanks to the yellow light’s ambiguous meaning, any attempts to experiment with a longer yellow—usually at busy intersections or on wide boulevards—have resulted in chaos. If the yellow goes on for too long, people will treat it like a green light. Yellow really means “make a decision” and, therefore, the yellow must last long enough to allow drivers to decide on a course of action, but not long enough for them to change their minds.

Today pedestrians face a similar dilemma: what does Flashing Hand mean? According to the MUTCD, Flashing Hand means “it is forbidden to enter the crosswalk from the curb.” But for people of my risk-taking ilk, Flashing Hand is an invitation to try to cross before the light turns red. When I arrive at a corner with Flashing Hand in progress, I must decide whether or not to make a break for the other side of the street. Since time spent deciding is time lost, I almost always go for it.

According to the experts, I behave this way to reduce my own time delays. But that’s only partially true. I do it to assert mastery over my domain. I do it because I am at the same intersections every day. I spend hours there, they are an extension of my home, but I am not allowed to decorate them to my liking and I have to share them with everyone else, including people I don’t like, and with cars, which I like even less. As a “routine crosser” it’s my way of telling the world to stick it. The research also says that I will stop behaving badly as I get older, which is comforting to know. With any luck I’ll live to a ripe old age.

In the three years I lived there, Dupont and Christie hosted a total of forty accidents. Thirteen involved personal injury and twenty-seven resulted only in property damage. Thankfully, none of the accidents at Dupont and Christie were fatal, including the three that involved pedestrians. The rest of the grid has not been so fortunate. Traffic-related fatalities have been increasing rapidly, from fifty-seven in 2001 to ninety-seven in 2002, fifty of whom were pedestrians struck by vehicles. They all must weigh heavily upon Walking Man’s conscience, for it turns out that the history of his deployment throughout Toronto was technocracy’s response to a tragic and surprisingly recent fatality.

Walking Man and Raised Right Hand first appeared in Toronto in the early 1970s, but only at select intersections and without the Flashing Hand intermediary. On December 20, 1987, forty-three-year-old Sandra Dennison and her seven-year-old son, David, exited a church service around 8:00 pm at Islington and Fordwich, one of Walking Man’s Toronto sentry points at the time. The light turned red as they crossed the slippery road and they were struck by a car. David died at the scene.

David was not merely one of fifty-two pedestrians killed on Toronto roads in 1987; he was also one of three killed within as many days. On December 18, sixty-year-old Herbert Miller was killed crossing Keele Street. The next day, Leila Windgren, seventy-five, was struck by a car in heavy rush-hour traffic on Yonge near Balliol. But it was David’s death—and the legal proceedings surrounding it, in which the city was fingered for not providing enough information to pedestrians—that spurred the technocrats into action. Toronto finally resolved to outfit every intersection with Walking Man and Raised Right Hand, and to introduce Flashing Raised Right Hand—already in widespread use in other cities—as a sort of pedestrian yellow light.

And so, by 1990, Flashing Hand was universally conscripted in Toronto to serve alongside Raised Right Hand and Walking Man as a buffer in the Faustian bargain with urban life, best described thus: if all parties cooperate, everyone will get to their destinations and the city will prosper, but a few people will die every year in the name of prosperity. The grid, although an engineering wonder, is a perpetual work in progress. When the engineers of the future succeed in building ultra-safe cars that drive themselves, always maintaining a prudent distance behind other vehicles, never gunning it on the yellow and always ceding the right-of-way to pedestrians, the grid will adapt once more. Its construction will likely never end.

At night, freed from the constant din of workday activity, my old street corner shows its age. The road is a lattice of intricate cracks, a patchwork of lighter and darker asphalt. Weeds poke through at the edges, manhole covers pock the surface. The ruts in the pavement have become deep grooves, black with burnt rubber near the worn stop line.

But still it gets no rest, its eyeballs watching over all directions at all hours. City workers are in the midst of repaving Christie on the intersection’s north side, part of the ongoing effort to make the geriatric intersection handle ever more traffic. A southbound left-turn arrow, installed in 2004, now lights up the corner. But neither fresh pavement nor new signalization will stem the onslaught. New condo developments will bring more miscreants like me, flaunting and toying with the urban order. And the trains passing by are loaded with shipments of new cars and trucks, all of which will soon hit the pavement.

I have since moved from Dupont and Christie, a short distance northeast, two blocks above the tracks, where a new set of signals claim most of my time. Raised Right Hand and I, both tired of being at loggerheads, are taking the move as an opportunity for a fresh start. But my new street corner is no different than the last. It also spends its days trying to corral a stampede of human chaos. It does so partly with the sheer physical mass and might of its materials, buffering and smoothing the barrage of tons upon tons of vehicles screeching to a halt and peeling away. But it also does so with silent pleas to all who cross its path, and who now strike me as more desperate than I ever realized.

Of course, we are as anonymous as the grid we plow through every day. But that makes no difference to my sidewalk, worn down from all the abuse and due for repair. When the crew comes to fix it, I will spy them from my window. When their work is done and they are gone, I will run out and etch my initial in the soft concrete.