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Toronto's Vision Zero plan aims to reduce pedestrian deaths to zero.

Fred Lum

I keep hearing that self-driving cars are a magic bullet that will make city streets safe for pedestrians and cyclists. Even if that’s true (and I have my doubts), they’re still a long way off. I also hear about digging up streets to put in pedestrian thoroughfares and various traffic calming measures, and that could take years – if it ever happens at all. Aren’t there things could cities do right now to make streets safer? – Gordon, Toronto

The fastest way to curb deaths on city roads? Slow cars down, city-planning experts say.

“The number one thing is to reduce speed limits,” says Richard Florida, professor and director of cities at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “In a place like Toronto, you need sensors on the damned roads – every single human being who’s speeding should get a ticket.”

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Several cities across Canada – including Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Montreal – have plans called Vision Zero, named after a Swedish plan that halved traffic deaths there.

As you might expect, the aim is to reduce traffic deaths to zero. But critics say Vision Zero plans here haven’t been working.

For instance, Toronto police say there were 37 pedestrians killed there in 2018, up from 29 deaths the year before.

“The biggest thing we can do is slow cars down,” said Daniel Fusca, director of policy and planning for the Keesmaat Group, in an e-mail. “New York reduced its speed limits, among many other things, and has seen a dramatic drop in traffic fatalities." Fusca adds that New York saw a 44-per-cent drop in pedestrian deaths from 2014 to 2018, in addition to adding cycling lanes and increased enforcement for traffic crimes, including speeding.

So, how does lowering speed limits reduce deaths? Physics.

According to Fusca, if you are hit by a car going at 40 km/h, then you have a 30-per-cent likelihood of dying if you’re a cyclist or a pedestrian. “But if you are hit by a car moving at 30 km/h, your likelihood of dying is reduced to 10 per cent – so that’s pretty significant,” he said.

There has been talk of lowering limits. Last year, Montreal announced plans to reduce speeds to 40 km/h on main streets and 30 km/h on residential streets, limits that had already been implemented in some boroughs there.

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In Toronto, a staff report recommended lowering speed limits to 50 km/h from 60 km/h on 41 stretches of arterial roads – and to 40 km/h from 50 km/h on five other arterial roads.

The need for speed?

Critics often argue that lowering speed limits will lead to more congested roads and the limits themselves are difficult to enforce.

“Cities like Toronto get caught in a box where they believe that the speed at which a car moves and the speed at which traffic moves is the most important thing and they disregard the health and safety of cyclists and pedestrians,” Florida from the University of Toronto says. “People say calming traffic is a war on the car – I say what we have now is a war on the people.”

Florida points to other simple measures that could make roads safer. One is to add things such as speed bumps, stop signs and crosswalks to calm traffic.

“You have to calm down roads, they can’t look like speedways,” he says. “If there’s nothing in the way, you hit the gas unknowingly – even me, I do this when I’m driving and I’m a cyclist and pedestrian.”

The timing of stoplights could be adjusted to give pedestrians more time to cross without cars turning left in front of them.

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Adding bike lanes is another fast solution, Florida says.

“Pedestrians, cyclists and cars all have to be segregated,” Florida says. “Even painted bike lanes are better than nothing, especially when they’re painted green.”

Over time, cities can gradually make lanes protected – physically separated from traffic – busier streets.

“And the way to do that is you get rid of street parking,” Florida says. “People should be parking in parking garages. Streets are there to move people – that we use them for car storage boggles my mind as an urbanist.”

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