Historicist: The Right Side of History

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Historicist: The Right Side of History

The regulations for pedestrians in Toronto’s 1944 traffic bylaw make the city a national laughingstock.

The Toronto Star has some fun with the pedestrian regulations in the new traffic bylaw. Note that the suggestion that pedestrians use hand signals to indicate an intention to turn was a joke. The Toronto Star. October 31, 1944.

In the autumn of 1944, Toronto City Council considered an updated traffic bylaw for approval. After the first two readings, the proposed bylaw was held two weeks for further consideration, after several Toronto aldermen took issue with the section pertaining to pedestrians. Of particular interest was a regulation that “pedestrians proceeding in opposite directions shall pass each other on the right, and no person shall run or race on any highway or crowd or jostle other pedestrians so as to cause disturbance, discomfort, or confusion.” Days later, Toronto found itself a source of national—and international—ridicule.

Prior to the First World War, North American city streets were considered shared space. Not only were they the means by which pedestrians, cyclists, and other vehicles got around, but they were frequently a gathering place. Automobiles, with their considerable horsepower, presented a new danger, and challenged how city dwellers used and thought of their roads. In his 2008 book Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, historian Peter D. Norton writes that “before 1920 American pedestrians crossed streets wherever they wished, walked in them, and let their children play in them . . . If an automobile injured or killed a pedestrian,” Norton continues, “the motorist was responsible. This was the presumptive conclusion under traditional perceptions of the city street as a public space.”

Yonge and King, ca. 1900. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.

During the 1920s, there was a shift in attitudes in American cities, reflected in public safety campaigns, legislation, and the rhetoric used in newspapers. So as to make room in the streets for cars, organizations connected directly to the automotive industry ran campaigns to attempt to regulate pedestrian behaviour. “In the mid-1920s,” Norton writes, “motordom began . . . [a] lasting campaign to keep school children out of the streets except to cross them, and to train them to cross streets carefully.” Police, city governments, and automobile organizations introduced programs designed to encourage the use of cars, and to get pedestrians to assume responsibility for their safety. The results were limited, and traffic fatalities continued to mount. “Pedestrian control was hard to sell,” Norton writes. “Safety weeks accomplished very little, and traffic control engineers not much more.”

While Norton suggests that American press coverage of road deaths had effectively shifted the responsibility for street safety to pedestrians by 1930, the Toronto newspapers continued to present debate on the subject in the years leading up to the Second World War, as editorials and statements from local safety advocates routinely called for specific acts of caution on the part of both drivers and pedestrians.

In 1942, mayor Frederick J. Conboy, a professional dentist with a long track record of taking an interest in public health, convened a special committee to examine ways of improving traffic safety in Toronto. This committee included Tracy leMay, Toronto’s planning commissioner, whose initial report suggested the establishment of safety patrols at public schools, mandatory driver training at high schools, and a recommendation “that training grounds be laid out, where the adult driver may be taught correct driving methods.”

Edward Dunn as a patrol sergeant in 1930. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 20562.

Also on Conboy’s committee was Police Inspector Edward Dunn, who had emerged in the 1930s as one of the city’s leading public safety figures. A veteran of the First World War and a jiu-jitsu expert, Dunn spent many years in charge of the police’s traffic safety department. In addition to overseeing regular crackdowns on traffic violations, Dunn regularly used the newspapers to call out drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians for unsafe behaviour that violated traffic laws. One Globe and Mail article described him as “the [Toronto] Police Department’s one-man safety campaign.”

In his December 1943 traffic safety appeal, Dunn reported that an investigation found that over half of the pedestrian deaths in Toronto the past year were the fault of the pedestrian, although how fault was determined was not made clear. “Elderly people and children cause or contribute to more than 50 percent of traffic accidents,” he claimed. “Elderly people offend most by walking from behind one vehicle into the path of another.” Dunn also hinted at a personal desire for increased pedestrian regulation, saying “We have many regulations for car drivers, but comparatively few for pedestrians.”

As in American cities, Toronto’s safety campaigns proved ineffective at reducing the number of fatalities, and Toronto’s traffic death toll continued to rise during the war. A September 1941 Toronto Star article reported that while Toronto had recently had the lowest per capita traffic death rate of any North American city of similar size, it was now on pace to have the highest.

Traffic Study Department photo of Yonge and Louisa, taken at 2:03 p.m. on December 24, 1935. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 16, Series 71, Item 11714.

With the issue of traffic safety increasingly on the minds of the Toronto public, the City brought forward its proposed updated traffic bylaw in October of 1944. The 55-page bylaw mostly pertained to motor vehicles, covering issues such as parking, idling, and one-way streets, and also had provisions for bicycles and horse-drawn vehicles. But it was the three parts of Section 7, covering pedestrians, that immediately raised eyebrows on City Council.

In addition to the requirement that pedestrians pass each other on the right and refrain from running or jostling one another, the bylaw also forbade pedestrians waiting to board a streetcar from entering the road until the streetcar had come to a complete stop, and restricted children on roller skates “or riding on a coaster” from entering the street. When asked for clarification on this last point, Tracy leMay indicated that “children on roller skates, under the bylaw, must remove the skates before entering a roadway.” Violations of the bylaw were to be punishable by $10 for a first offence, and $25 for any further violations.

Torontonians waiting for streetcars. The Evening Telegram. October 17, 1944.

Alderman John Innes was the bylaw’s most vocal opponent. He repeatedly denounced its restrictions on pedestrians, saying “we might just as well take in the streets.” Board of Control member Robert Saunders was one of several to suggest that the section concerning people waiting for a streetcar was not only unenforceable, but that streetcar drivers would not stop unless pedestrians were already in the roadway, signalling their desire to board. “I broke that one this morning. How can you convince the operators to stop if you don’t step out to meet them? That provision is broken several times a day on every main street.”

Alderman E.C. Roelefson defended the legislation, saying it was “being torn to pieces with very little consideration. It is needed to prevent traffic deaths . . . We must have laws with teeth in them. Until we get them, deaths will increase.”

Over the next few days, the Toronto press poked fun at the pedestrian section of the bylaw, and other Canadian newspapers soon picked up the story, delighted with the opportunity to mock Toronto. The Globe and Mail reprinted an editorial from the Ottawa Journal, which mused “There’s a city for you, a city with personal dignity and decorum, a city where their minds are on things to ennoble man’s existence. The jostlers and elbowers! Off with their heads! . . . It is good to see that Toronto is still carrying the torch: the front parlor of Canada, that’s what it is.”

A depiction of how difficult this bylaw was to enforce. The Evening Telegram. November 4, 1944.

The next day, the Globe reprinted a Montreal Gazette editorial on the subject, which observed “If such a bylaw were passed here it would mean that the tramway company would go out of business, for whoever caught a streetcar in Montreal without running or jostling?” The Gazette also mused about what might have necessitated a bylaw against running for streetcars. “Why has this strange bylaw been brought before the council? Has there been an epidemic of racing and running on city streets? . . . It seems more than likely that they were running to get somewhere, or that they were racing to get away from something . . . On reflection we have decided that they were running to get somewhere else, and racing to get away from Toronto.”

The Telegram mentioned an editorial from the St. Catharines Standard, which suggested further extending the bylaw “to cover public gum chewers, people who tell you about their operations, pests who want to know whether it is warm enough for you, and so on.”

In response, a Telegram editorial indicated that upon first learning of the bylaw, they saw it as “the nadir of repression and regimentation.” Reflecting on these out-of-town editorials, however, they continued “But we did not realize the joy which the proposal was to bring to the underprivileged in other cities and the brightness with which it would irradiate the dullness of their existence . . . In bringing sunshine to dark corners, the proposal seems to have served its only useful purpose. But that’s something.”

Cartoon from the Halifax Herald, reprinted in the Evening Telegram. December 20, 1944.

Advocates of the bylaw at city hall dismissed the criticism as trivial, and Council approved the motion on October 30, to take effect once approved by the Province. An incensed Alderman Innes reportedly “waved his arms and muttered disgustedly about the pedestrian-passing section, and said he would require a compass and blueprint to stroll down Yonge St. legally.” The Globe and Mail‘s Frank Tumpane wryly observed that “no explicit instructions are given for pedestrians passing each other who happen to be proceeding in the same direction. The citizen is left to grope his way along as best he may, with no aid from the Corporation of the City of Toronto.” A few days later, one unidentified Globe reporter walked to City Hall from King and York, and reckoned that he passed 182 other pedestrians on the left side, while also committing other infractions such as jostling and running for a streetcar. Comparing his transgressions to the relevant fines, the reporter estimated that if the law were enforced, this stroll alone would have generated $9,030 in revenue for the City.

The press soon discovered, however, that the most mocked parts of the pedestrian section of the new bylaw were not, in fact, new. The requirement that pedestrians not enter the roadway ahead of a streetcar had been on the books since 1939, and the regulation about passing other pedestrians on the right had been part of the traffic bylaw since 1920. While the bylaw’s supporters saw this as evidence of the good sense of the law, the Star issued numerous editorials arguing that this only proved how useless this section of the bylaw was. One such editorial noted that “people have been passing each other on the left, and running for streetcars, and leaving the sidewalk before the approaching streetcar has stopped, and so far as recollection serves, not a single prosecution has materialized . . . What is the use of a law like that?”

What’s next — pedestrians using their hands to signal a turn? The Globe and Mail. October 19, 1944.

After Council officially approved the bylaw, the Toronto Star ran a set of lighthearted photos to illustrate how city streets might be affected. One photo showed a man with his hand sticking out to the left, with the caption “Disturbance to fellow pedestrians is a punishable offence. A signal for a left turn, like this, is the logical step.” The idea of pedestrian hand signals was not a joke original to the Star; an earlier Globe and Mail cartoon had also speculated about future pedestrian restrictions, and showed a man orally “honking” while overtaking another pedestrian, his hand also extended to indicate an upcoming turn.

The much-ballyhooed bylaw received assent from the Province and went into effect on December 13, 1944, and was instantly shown to be impractical: earlier that week the city had been hit by one of its worst snowstorms in history, and most streets and sidewalks were impassable, covered in two feet of snow. Naturally, Toronto newspapers delighted in showing Torontonians walking in the streets, waiting for streetcars on snowbanks, and seemingly flouting every aspect of the pedestrian section of the traffic bylaw.

Torontonians negotiating city streets on the first day of the new traffic bylaw. A man in the centre photo is both jostling people and passing on the left. In the upper left photo, Dorothy Hudson knits while waiting for a streetcar. “She should be back on the sidewalk, but claims she couldn’t find it.” The Evening Telegram, December 16, 1944.

Council decided the bylaw warranted further review; after a mere five days, it was sent back to the Works Committee, to be rewritten and reconsidered the following year. “I will advise the police commissioner that the bylaw is to be given more consideration,” Mayor Conboy told the Star. “People don’t need to fear prosecution until the matter is again discussed. They should not be prosecuted for trivial offenses.”

Meanwhile, out of town newspapers picked up on the earlier jokes about Toronto requiring pedestrians to use hand signals, and began reporting this idea as fact. On December 26, the Star reprinted a comment attributed to the Peterborough Examiner: “In Toronto pedestrians must give hand signals, like motorists. It’s just a step from that to tail-lights fastened to the back of the overcoat.” The Star further reported that the Ottawa Journal and Kingston Whig-Standard were also claiming that hand signals were part of the bylaw, lamenting that “someone has said so in fun; the statement got into the papers; it was carried by the Associated Press in the United States; and Toronto is going to be living it down for years.”

The bylaw’s loudest critic, John Innes, in 1948. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 41, Item 512.

“The downtown streets would present an awe-inspiring spectacle,” wrote the Toledo Blade, “and the damage to the eyes might be considerable [if] arms were thrust out to signal a quick turn to gaze at an enticing article in a store window. The carnage at street intersections would be terrible, and there might be embarrassing encounters if a stranger in town should interpret the outstretched arm as an offer to shake hands.” A brief article in the Rockhampton [Australia] Morning Bulletin noted that the bylaw was not enforced on account of the snowstorm, and proclaimed that “law-abiding Torontonians who braved the snowdrifts while the city was digging itself out from a 22-inch snowfall did not signal their turns. The mayor, stung by country-wide jeers, has promised reconsideration of the bylaw in the new year.”

Later in the winter, the Toronto press made another startling discovery: there were similar, unenforced bylaws regulating pedestrian behaviour in a good number of other North American cities, including many cities whose newspapers had gleefully laughed at Toronto’s expense. The Ottawa Citizen reported that a provision in one of Ottawa’s bylaws stated that “a pedestrian on meeting another on any sidewalk or path shall pass on the right, and on overtaking another shall pass on the left.” According to the Star, Halifax, Windsor, and Winnipeg all had similar laws on the books.

In March of 1945, Toronto’s Works Committee submitted a new draft of the traffic bylaw to the Board of Control. While new wording made an allowance for children on roller skates to cross at designated crosswalks without removing their skates, the more controversial sections about passing on the right and stepping into the street ahead of streetcars remained intact. This draft was unanimously rejected by the Board of Control.

Looking up Yonge Street, December 3, 1949. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1128, Series 381, File 19, Item 1.

Over the next few years, many changes were made to the 1944 traffic bylaw, mostly relating to parking and the direction of traffic. One 1948 amendment eased the rules about stepping into traffic when intending to board a streetcar, but it is unclear if the provision requiring pedestrians to pass on the right was actually taken off the books until the traffic bylaws were again consolidated and rewritten in 1957, by which point the issue appears to have been long since forgotten. By then, most of the more outspoken figures associated with the debate over the bylaw, including Tracy leMay, John Innes, Robert Saunders, and Mayor Frederick Conboy, had all died. (Conboy’s 1949 obituary in the Telegram noted that his health had declined rapidly after he was struck by a car the year before at St. Clair and Oakwood.) By the late 1950s, Toronto pedestrians were preparing for instruction on how to use the new crosswalk system, and school children were learning about safety from the city’s new safety mascot, Elmer the Safety Elephant.

One of the last references to Toronto pedestrians passing on the right appeared in a brief comment on the editorial page of the Star on May 9, 1945, the day after Torontonians celebrated V-E Day: “It is rumoured that on Monday, in downtown Toronto, several pedestrians broke the city’s traffic bylaw by passing on the left, and even fractured the anti-jostling bylaw. This will have to be looked into!”


Additional material from: City of Toronto By-Law No. 16218 (passed October 30, 1944); The Globe and Mail (May 19, 1938; January 24, June 28, December 2, December 4, December 16, December 18, 1939; May 2, 1940; January 10, January 30, February 13, February 25, 1942; October 1, October 16, November 5, November 8, November 12, December 21, 1943; March 24, April 11, August 1, August 26, October 17, October 19, October 20, October 21, October 31, November 2, December 14, December 20, 1944; March 15, April 6, September 26, December 8, December 13, 1945; February 27, June 8, 1946; April 8, May 1, 1948; February 9, April 27, May 7, 1949; June 26, 1956; October 18, 1957; October 29, 1959); Lewiston Evening Journal (January 11, 1945); The [Canadian Armed Forces] Maple Leaf (December 6, 1944); Minutes of Toronto City Council (1948; 1949; 1958); The Montreal Gazette (December 14, 1944); Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (MIT Press, 2008: Cambridge); Ottawa Citizen (December 14, December 21, 1944; February 9, 1945); Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (December 21, 1944); The Rockhampton [Australia] Morning Bulletin (December 15, 1944); The St. Petersburg Times (December 21, 1944); The Toronto Star (December 20, 1930; January 11, April 20, May 19, 1938; July 21, December 12, 1939; January 13, May 4, May 11, November 4, 1940; September 6, October 16, 1941; January 17, February 25, February 27, 1942; November 6, 1943; October 17, October 31, November 1, November 2, November 4, December 13, December 16, December 20, December 26, December 27, 1944; February 9, February 14, March 10, May 9, 1945; April 5, 1951; October 7, 1952; June 15, 1955; October 3, 1958); The Evening Telegram (May 26, 1934; October 17, October 21, November 4, December 13, December 16, December 19, December 20, 1944; March 29, 1949); The Toledo Blade (December 26, 1944); Tom Vanderbilt, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do – And What It Says About Us (Alfred A. Knopf, 2008: New York).


Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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