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No Cars. No Traffic Signals. No Deaths. 78

Toronto Islands

Photo by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country

Are car-free liveable communities the way of the future?

On Friday I posted a video highlighting how most Toronto Cyclists are considerate of others and are just trying to get to their destination in an imperfect city with streets and laws that were designed for automobiles.

A common criticism from commenters has been that I had edited out the video footage of the lawless bandits that apparently terrorize the streets of Toronto.

I decided to address this critique by showing the video footage in high speed from that same morning while I was pedaling about Toronto.

You will see in the video that the vast majority of cyclists are considerate of others:

Watch on YouTube

Of course, anyone could go into a residential neighbourhood and take video footage of cyclists rolling through empty 4-way stops. But so what? 4-way stops were installed to calm motor vehicle traffic in residential neighbourhoods. Most motorists don’t even bother coming to a complete stop either. As long as people aren’t being inconsiderate to others or putting someone else in danger, then why get angry at it?

In fact, if not for motor vehicles, we wouldn’t need traffic signals or stop signs at all.

A quick ferry ride over to Toronto’s islands is evidence of this. The Toronto islands boast North America’s largest car-free urban community. Bicycles, wheelchairs, and feet are virtually the only way of getting around, and only emergency and maintenance vehicles are allowed to drive on the islands.

The islands are comprised of roads that resemble any other roads that you might see in the city, except there are three things missing: automobiles, traffic signals and traffic fatalities.

Zero deaths. None. Zilch. Nadda. Nil. Nashi. Nej.

There are plenty of junctions with hundreds of bicyclists crossing paths with hundreds and sometimes thousands of pedestrians. Yet there isn’t a single stop sign or traffic signal that I could find.

Sometimes we forget the reason we have traffic signals and strict rules in the first place: because we needed to control automobiles and prevent them from causing more deaths.

The Toronto islands are truly the most serene place in the city to live. Kids can roam freely on the streets without worrying about dodging cars. It’s quiet, beautiful and only a 10-minute ferry ride from the city.

This type of car-free community should be a model for new developments in both urban and suburban areas. If we can slightly detach ourselves from our automobiles, we could build more of these car-free zones and liveable communities that would put our current residential developments to shame.

Below are a few photos I snapped on my phone early this morning while visiting the Toronto islands:

Toronto Islands

Toronto Islands

Toronto Islands

Toronto Islands

All photos by James D. Schwartz / The Urban Country

Stay tuned for an in-depth follow-up post on the Toronto Islands and the opportunity for future liveable communities that use the car-free model embraced by Island residents.

James D. Schwartz is the editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com.

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  • http://twitter.com/FreePublicTrans Free Public Transit

    The problem is, very simply, the private auto. It is not necessary. We could have a garden of Eden without it.

  • http://twitter.com/FreePublicTrans Free Public Transit

    The problem is, very simply, the private auto. It is not necessary. We could have a garden of Eden without it.

  • http://hanlonsrzr.blogspot.com/ Mr.S.

    “The islands are comprised of roads that resemble any other roads that you might see in the city, except there are three things missing: automobiles, traffic signals and traffic fatalities.

    Zero deaths. None. Zilch. Nadda. Nil.”

    Add ‘nashi’ in honour of the more sane cycling here in Tokyo, please. Maybe the words for ‘none’ in Danish and Dutch, too.

    It would be funny, if the status quo weren’t so tragic. What an argument!

    • http://twitter.com/samsnch Sam Sanchez

      That would be “nej”.

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      Added nashi and nej :)

      • http://twitter.com/biketo BikeTO

        In Dutch: none is “geen”, nothing is “niets”, and no is “nee”. E.g. “Er zijn geen autos op de eilanden van Toronto.” (My Dutch is okay but still needs some Google translate help now and then).

        • the_lemur

          That’s true and all (it should be auto’s with an apostrophe in the plural, to keep it a long O), but since we seem to be going for alliteration and words along the lines of ‘nada’, why not something like the colloquial version of ‘niets’: niks? Or nul (zero)?

          • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

            Geez Mr. S, you started a battle of the Dutch language :P

          • http://twitter.com/biketo BikeTO

            Sounds like the_lemur knows. My parents have used “niks” – I can +1 that.

            The Toronto island residents have produced at least two interesting car-free proponents: a cargo bike builder and a lawyer pushing for better bike lanes. So long as people can live there it will help breed some visionaries.

    • the_lemur

      Slangy Dutch for ‘zero’ would be ‘noppes’.

      • http://amsterdamize.com/ amsterdamize

        to do +1: ‘noppes’ in everyday use: ‘voor noppes’, aka ‘voor niks’, aka ‘for free’. All Dutch like that :)

  • http://hanlonsrzr.blogspot.com/ Mr.S.

    “The islands are comprised of roads that resemble any other roads that you might see in the city, except there are three things missing: automobiles, traffic signals and traffic fatalities.

    Zero deaths. None. Zilch. Nadda. Nil.”

    Add ‘nashi’ in honour of the more sane cycling here in Tokyo, please. Maybe the words for ‘none’ in Danish and Dutch, too.

    It would be funny, if the status quo weren’t so tragic. What an argument!

  • JenHendriks

    I fantasize about living on the Island. As close to raising your kids free range in an urban environment a I think you can get.

  • Jen H

    I fantasize about living on the Island. As close to raising your kids free range in an urban environment a I think you can get.

  • Tkeen

    Rather than showing videos of cyclists stopping at red lights, let’s show YouTube videos of cars running red lights. Search ‘red light runners’ and look at what comes up, but be warned – some show actual collisions. A lot of those videos are put up by police departments in the USA.

    As for the Toronto Islands, yes no commuters, cars or signs… also no shops or businesses except for Centreville and the marinas. I’d love to live there, but I’d need a bicycle for the water (in other words, a kayak) to get groceries and such from town.

  • Tkeen

    Rather than showing videos of cyclists stopping at red lights, let’s show YouTube videos of cars running red lights. Search ‘red light runners’ and look at what comes up, but be warned – some show actual collisions. A lot of those videos are put up by police departments in the USA.

    As for the Toronto Islands, yes no commuters, cars or signs… also no shops or businesses except for Centreville and the marinas. I’d love to live there, but I’d need a bicycle for the water (in other words, a kayak) to get groceries and such from town.

  • http://twitter.com/samsnch Sam Sanchez

    That would be “nej”.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    Added nashi and nej :)

  • the_lemur

    Slangy Dutch for ‘zero’ would be ‘noppes’.

  • http://twitter.com/biketo Herb

    In Dutch: none is “geen”, nothing is “niets”, and no is “nee”. E.g. “Er zijn geen autos op de eilanden van Toronto.” (My Dutch is okay but still needs some Google translate help now and then).

  • the_lemur

    That’s true and all (it should be auto’s with an apostrophe in the plural, to keep it a long O), but since we seem to be going for alliteration and words along the lines of ‘nada’, why not something like the colloquial version of ‘niets’: niks? Or nul (zero)?

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    Geez Mr. S, you started a battle of the Dutch language :P

  • http://www.joyofbicyclecommuting.com Micheal Blue

    James, thanks for this post and the photos. Now I feel inspired to visit that place. BTW, for our society to be car free or at least truly car light, a major re-alignment in transportation would be needed. The public transit system would have to be excellent. Unfortunately, in Toronto our TTC is a half-baked thing.

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      Michael, I believe there is a middle-ground where we can build car-free communities like the Toronto Islands, but residents still drive cars. On the islands, they have to take a ferry to get to their cars (and many do own cars). They are inherently discouraged from driving simply because they have to travel to get to their cars. Imagine we did this in other communities? Keep the cars away from the homes and create a small barrier for people to get to their cars. It will encourage businesses to open up in residential areas, because people will have more incentive to walk to a restaurant instead of driving to it. Our suburban neighbourhoods would change overnight. And if people want to travel far, they still have cars available outside of the residential areas at their disposal.

      • http://www.joyofbicyclecommuting.com Micheal Blue

        James, I agree. Having car-free residential areas, and then secure parking lots somewhere at the outskirts of those areas would be great. I can “taste” the natural walkways, the parks, the relaxed atmosphere…oh, man…
        I disagree with the comment by Free Public Transit. The private auto is not the problem. It’s just a tool. Blaming a tool for a problem resulting from how people use it is not intelligent. The problem is that some (many?) people get attached to the tool and don’t use it wisely.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KWYP5RPDMJTRBRDUUYKY25RQKQ Ryan

          @ Micheal Blue: I agree with you on the tool point, to some extent. It is a tool, and as such, arbitrary; problems come from improper use, or use by people who are not properly equipped to handle it. And therein lies the problem.

          If I give a toddler a hammer and he or she starts smashing up everything in the house with it, who’s at fault?- the toddler, the tool, or me for giving it to him/her? Clearly, I am, because I gave a tool to someone who clearly doesn’t have the appropriate skills, discernment, and judgement to use it safely and appropriately. So how to rectify the situation? Take it away until the toddler develops those. Think the toddler will protest when I take it? I think so. Still needs to be done.
          I think way too many drivers- especially here in the good ol’ US-of-A- have proven themselves to be the toddler with the hammer when it comes to the car.

          Also, there are times when you need the right tool for the job. Driving a mile in your SUV to get a bag of groceries is like using that hammer to kill a fly on the window- it’s the wrong tool for the job and very destructive. But many drivers will tell you that it’s their “by-god right” and that we’re trying to take away their freedom by even suggesting there’s another way.

          We need to readjust our perceptions about car ownership and use: that it’s a privelege, not a right; that it should be taken seriously and only undertaken by those who have proven themselves capable; and only then when it’s the appropriate tool for the job.

  • http://www.joyofbicyclecommuting.com/ Micheal Blue

    James, thanks for this post and the photos. Now I feel inspired to visit that place. BTW, for our society to be car free or at least truly car light, a major re-alignment in transportation would be needed. The public transit system would have to be excellent. Unfortunately, in Toronto our TTC is a half-baked thing.

  • http://twitter.com/biketo Bike T.O.

    Sounds like the_lemur knows. My parents have used “niks” – I can +1 that.

    The Toronto island residents have produced at least two interesting car-free proponents: a cargo bike builder and a lawyer pushing for better bike lanes. So long as people can live there it will help breed some visionaries.

  • http://www.joyofbicyclecommuting.com/ Micheal Blue

    James, I agree. Having car-free residential areas, and then secure parking lots somewhere at the outskirts of those areas would be great. I can “taste” the natural walkways, the parks, the relaxed atmosphere…oh, man…
    I disagree with the comment by Free Public Transit. The private auto is not the problem. It’s just a tool. Blaming a tool for a problem resulting from how people use it is not intelligent. The problem is that some (many?) people get attached to the tool and don’t use it wisely.

  • http://amsterdamize.com/ amsterdamize

    to do +1: ‘noppes’ in everyday use: ‘voor noppes’, aka ‘voor niks’, aka ‘for free’. All Dutch like that :)

  • kfg

    Bull? What bull? I don’t see any bull. Hey! What the hell happened to my china?

  • kfg

    Bull? What bull? I don’t see any bull. Hey! What the hell happened to my china?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_KWYP5RPDMJTRBRDUUYKY25RQKQ Ryan

    @ Micheal Blue: I agree with you on the tool point, to some extent. It is a tool, and as such, arbitrary; problems come from improper use, or use by people who are not properly equipped to handle it. And therein lies the problem.

    If I give a toddler a hammer and he or she starts smashing up everything in the house with it, who’s at fault?- the toddler, the tool, or me for giving it to him/her? Clearly, I am, because I gave a tool to someone who clearly doesn’t have the appropriate skills, discernment, and judgement to use it safely and appropriately. So how to rectify the situation? Take it away until the toddler develops those. Think the toddler will protest when I take it? I think so. Still needs to be done.
    I think way too many drivers- especially here in the good ol’ US-of-A- have proven themselves to be the toddler with the hammer when it comes to the car.

    Also, there are times when you need the right tool for the job. Driving a mile in your SUV to get a bag of groceries is like using that hammer to kill a fly on the window- it’s the wrong tool for the job and very destructive. But many drivers will tell you that it’s their “by-god right” and that we’re trying to take away their freedom by even suggesting there’s another way.

    We need to readjust our perceptions about car ownership and use: that it’s a privelege, not a right; that it should be taken seriously and only undertaken by those who have proven themselves capable; and only then when it’s the appropriate tool for the job.

  • http://twitter.com/MonkeyTrap Stelios the Bike Man

    “In fact, if not for motor vehicles, we wouldn’t need traffic signals or stop signs at all.”

    Too true. And yet here in Australia we get all sorts of accusations and demands from the motoring apologist to abide by “their” rules, because we are using “their” roads paid with “their” taxes (yeah right). Well then motoring apologists: . The horesless carriage should have died a deserved death long ago, yet here we are. I say thatt’s YOUR problem and it needs fixing…

  • http://twitter.com/MonkeyTrap Stelios the Bike Man

    “In fact, if not for motor vehicles, we wouldn’t need traffic signals or stop signs at all.”

    Too true. And yet here in Australia we get all sorts of accusations and demands from the motoring apologist to abide by “their” rules, because we are using “their” roads paid with “their” taxes (yeah right). Well then motoring apologists: . The horesless carriage should have died a deserved death long ago, yet here we are. I say thatt’s YOUR problem and it needs fixing…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Flavster-Titmawz/1433774530 Flavster Titmawz

    I saw in the video that you guys have a nice bike share program going… Finally here in Miami, Fl we got one in Miami Beach and it has exploded. It provides about 11,000 rides a day ! The mindset is shifting. I as well see more people commuting on bicycle, which brings a big smile to my face =D

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Flavster-Titmawz/1433774530 Flavster Titmawz

    I saw in the video that you guys have a nice bike share program going… Finally here in Miami, Fl we got one in Miami Beach and it has exploded. It provides about 11,000 rides a day ! The mindset is shifting. I as well see more people commuting on bicycle, which brings a big smile to my face =D

  • http://reganmian.net/blog Stian Håklev

    I realize this is a few months late, but this made me think of where I grew up in Norway. It was a small town, and where I lived, we had several streets of houses that all shared one small parking garage. All the cars would park there (you were allowed to drive in front of the houses only if you had bought furniture etc), and the tiny streets (only one lane) around the houses were for walking and bicycling.

    All the relatively small houses shared the front lawn – it was just a long green “park”, whereas the backyards were semi-private (all the kids would run through them at summer anyway). There was also a nice little football field. Everyone in my town drives, even though many bike too, but they didn’t mind walking 100 m to their cars, and I think the living environment was a lot nicer, and nobody would disturb your street hockey game, or endanger some kid just learning to bike.

    Once a year, we’d have a “dugnad”, all the adults would help out painting fences, fixing paths etc, and in the evening we’d put tons of chairs on the parking lot, a band would play, and we’d have a huge barbecue. :)

    When I went home to Norway for the first time after living in Toronto, I kept wondering why I really loved the neighbourhoods in Norway, but hated the suburbs in Toronto. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but perhaps this higher density and more “communal” feeling is part of it, rather than anonymous cul-de-sacs with wide roads, where very house has a big lawn, driveway etc.

  • http://reganmian.net/blog Stian Håklev

    I realize this is a few months late, but this made me think of where I grew up in Norway. It was a small town, and where I lived, we had several streets of houses that all shared one small parking garage. All the cars would park there (you were allowed to drive in front of the houses only if you had bought furniture etc), and the tiny streets (only one lane) around the houses were for walking and bicycling.

    All the relatively small houses shared the front lawn – it was just a long green “park”, whereas the backyards were semi-private (all the kids would run through them at summer anyway). There was also a nice little football field. Everyone in my town drives, even though many bike too, but they didn’t mind walking 100 m to their cars, and I think the living environment was a lot nicer, and nobody would disturb your street hockey game, or endanger some kid just learning to bike.

    Once a year, we’d have a “dugnad”, all the adults would help out painting fences, fixing paths etc, and in the evening we’d put tons of chairs on the parking lot, a band would play, and we’d have a huge barbecue. :)

    When I went home to Norway for the first time after living in Toronto, I kept wondering why I really loved the neighbourhoods in Norway, but hated the suburbs in Toronto. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but perhaps this higher density and more “communal” feeling is part of it, rather than anonymous cul-de-sacs with wide roads, where very house has a big lawn, driveway etc.

  • Dr J

    Beautiful place and so close to the large city! This reminds me a place pretty close to my area: Nantucket Island. While not entirely car-free, Nantucket is a place where car traffic is minimal, traffic lights are nonexistent, and bike paths connect both ends of the island. It is also very picturesque, which makes it a perfect getaway spot for a bike trip in the summer.


    http://bostonbybike.blogspot.com

  • Dr J

    Beautiful place and so close to the large city! This reminds me a place pretty close to my area: Nantucket Island. While not entirely car-free, Nantucket is a place where car traffic is minimal, traffic lights are nonexistent, and bike paths connect both ends of the island. It is also very picturesque, which makes it a perfect getaway spot for a bike trip in the summer.


    http://bostonbybike.blogspot.com

  • Hershelsuhar548623

    How beautiful to see a cycling island paradise where there are few cars and you are free to roam the streets with your bicycle. I wish I could go there cause I love cycling.

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  • http://www.tyrebaydirect.com Wheel Balancing Weights

    I agree. Such a great place to simply imagine. Without cars and noise, very peaceful.

  • http://www.tyrebaydirect.com/ Wheel Balancing Weights

    I agree. Such a great place to simply imagine. Without cars and noise, very peaceful.

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  • Todd Scott

    “The Toronto islands boast North America’s largest car-free urban community”

    I’m not sure that’s correct. Mackinac Island in Michigan is car free and much larger. On Google Maps, Mackinac’s urban area looks larger. The only police crash reports I saw on the island involved snowmobiles.

  • Todd Scott

    “The Toronto islands boast North America’s largest car-free urban community”

    I’m not sure that’s correct. Mackinac Island in Michigan is car free and much larger. On Google Maps, Mackinac’s urban area looks larger. The only police crash reports I saw on the island involved snowmobiles.

  • Cullen Carter

    At 1::45 it looked like you were passed by a cyclist carrying a young child in a rear, baby bike seat. Is this correct?

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      Yes, there was a child seat, but I don’t think there was a child in the seat. I don’t have the original footage handy at the moment, but it wouldn’t be hard to dig up.

  • Cullen Carter

    At 1::45 it looked like you were passed by a cyclist carrying a young child in a rear, baby bike seat. Is this correct?

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    Yes, there was a child seat, but I don’t think there was a child in the seat. I don’t have the original footage handy at the moment, but it wouldn’t be hard to dig up.

  • the_lemur

    What kind of camera are you using?

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      I believe it was an inexpensive JVC Everio HD camcorder. I forgot it in China when I left China in May.

  • the_lemur

    What kind of camera are you using?

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    I believe it was an inexpensive JVC Everio HD camcorder. I forgot it in China when I left China in May.

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  • Dan

    Mackinaw Island in the US state of Michigan is also auto free, they outlawed them 100 years ago and never changed the law since, calling them “loud smelly machines.” It turns out they knew back then what we know today, and they were viewed as dangerous to pedestrians back then. Duh, somethings never change, they still are very dangerous to pedestrians, and judging by 40k car deaths per year in the US, also very dangerous to us.