Why did the Torontonian cross the road?

Brock Dale was incredulous when he was fined while crossing the street.

It was the corner of King and Bathurst Sts. when the police officer on a bicycle handed him the $50 ticket for crossing while the illuminated hand was flashing in the pedestrian signal box.

“It was a quiet Sunday morning, and there was hardly any traffic,” he recalled. “And I mean, everybody does it in Toronto.”

It’s commonly called “jaywalking” and in Toronto thousands of pedestrians are fined each year for similar offences.

A freedom of information request revealed Toronto police officers issued 9,310 jaywalking tickets in the 18-month period between January 2012 and June 6, 2013.

The most tickets were issued in two of Toronto’s downtown police divisions —51 and 14 — with 2,347 and 1,842 tickets respectively. By comparison, only 41 tickets were issued by officers of 32 Division in suburban north Toronto.

You can explore the investigations data set through my interactive dashboard to see how many jaywalking tickets have been issued in your division, or by downloading the raw data for your own offline analysis.

The data also reveals how — with 16 different types of violation listed — there is no one specific jaywalking offence in Ontario. Pedestrians can be charged under numerous sections of the Ontario Highway Traffic Act or under several of Toronto’s bylaws. The fine for most provincial offences is $35 plus a $15 court fee and a victim surcharge; however, the fine under a municipal offence is $85.

In total, the 9,310 tickets issued between January 2012 and June 2013 accrued $473,935 in fines.

The highest number of tickets (3,280) were issued for breaching subsection 144(22) of the provincial act — namely “where portions of a roadway are marked for pedestrian use, no pedestrian shall cross the roadway except within a portion so marked”.

Over 1,100 tickets were issued to Torontonians like Dale who violated subsection 144(27) by crossing a road when faced with a solid or flashing “don’t walk” signal.

But Dylan Reid, pedestrian activist and co-founder of Walk Toronto, says the provincial highway act and the city’s bylaws are contradictory.

“If you push police, they’ll admit that the Toronto bylaw allows you to cross mid-block if you’re not interfering with traffic,” he says.

Reid says it’s perfectly legal for people to cross a street mid-block in Toronto as long as they’re not adjacent to a marked pedestrian crossing, and they yield to oncoming traffic.

The actual bylaw adds “nothing in the section shall relieve the driver of a vehicle or streetcar from the obligation of taking all due care to avoid an accident.”

“But nobody’s sure what this section in the bylaw means, and police use it whenever they feel like it, and interpret it however they feel like,” says Reid.

According to Professor Peter Norton in his book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, the concept of jaywalking was actually the creation of the car lobby in 1920s America. Before that period the streets had belonged to the pedestrians – but that sole ownership was challenged with car production becoming increasingly mainstream. A series of accidents involving pedestrians led to a great deal of negative publicity for car manufacturers.

Norton writes how in the 1920s there was a concerted campaign by the industry to create the concept of “jaywalking” — where “jay” is a derogatory term for a simple hick from the country who doesn’t know not to wander aimlessly into the street.

Pedestrian advocate Reid argues crossing mid-block actually makes the city safer because it gets motorists used to the idea that pedestrians are out there.

But Constable Hugh Smith from the Traffic Services unit dismisses that notion, and reels off the numbers of pedestrians killed on Toronto’s streets.

“Between 2009 and 2012 there were 93 pedestrian deaths in total,” he says. “And they tend to be mid-block crossings, and so they’re all preventable.”

In January 2010, following 14 deaths in just the first four weeks of the year, Toronto police initiated a series of blitzes to increase awareness of pedestrian safety.

Smith says that with approximately six reported collisions happening a day, these ticketing campaigns are about changing people’s habits.

“Just like a motorist getting a speeding ticket, if a person gets a ticket for jaywalking they’ll also change their behaviour to avoid getting another,” he says.

But Brock Dale laughs when asked if his ticket made him think twice before jaywalking again.

“Not at all — I did it again later that afternoon,” he admits. “It’s just a part of the big city lifestyle.”

And the peaks and troughs in the ticketing data indeed suggests police blitzes only have a temporary impact on commuter behaviour.

An interactive graph shows two large spikes in the number of tickets issued by downtown’s 51 Division. Police issued 259 tickets in March 2012, and 239 in November 2012 — a month when the police initiated one of their safety campaigns.

Further analysis of the data also revealed how ticket figures were very low in a police division that contains three of Toronto’s deadliest intersections, according to a report submitted to the city’s public works committee in May 2013.

Only 195 jaywalking-related tickets were issued by Division 42 officers — approximately 3,000 fewer than Division 51.

Dylan Reid says it makes little sense for the police to focus on downtown intersections like Front and Bay Sts.

“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel there,” he says. “There are so many pedestrians at those intersections — it’s actually one of the safest intersections in the city.”

A true pedestrian safety blitz would target the more dangerous intersections in the suburbs where the speed limits are higher, says Reid.

“I think these police blitzes give drivers a false sense that they’re not responsible for pedestrian safety,” he says.

But Constable Smith defends the blitzes and their locations.

“We probably do more safety-related campaigns targeting cyclists and motorists,” he says. “And Division 42 is one of the larger divisions in Toronto making Division 52 look like a postage stamp by comparison.”

A limited number of officers having a greater area to cover could easily explain the lower ticketing figure, says Smith.

“And just because there’s fewer tickets issued there, doesn’t mean the visible presence of officers isn’t having an impact on pedestrian behaviour.”