It got a lot safer to walk after speed limits were dropped on local roads throughout central Toronto, a new study found.
The results, which were published Sunday in the journal BMC Public Health, run counter to a common narrative at Toronto city hall that lowering the limit will not, on its own, save lives.
A chance to test that view came after councillors in the old cities of Toronto and East York reduced the speed limits from 40 kilometres an hour to 30 on hundreds of kilometres of local roads in their wards. This was a change these councillors could make unilaterally and they approved it unanimously in 2015, despite criticism from the mayor and some suburban councillors.
“This was a pretty simple intervention and it showed something that I think was a bigger effect than I was expecting to see,” said Dr. Andrew Howard, an epidemiologist and orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Sick Children who was one author of the study.
Researchers combed police reports and found that 28-per-cent fewer pedestrians were hit by motorists on these roads after the speed limit was reduced. The number of people on foot killed or seriously injured on these roads plunged 67 per cent. These drops coincided with a sharp reduction in motorist ticketing by police, who cut their dedicated traffic unit in 2013.
Downtown councillor and board of health chair Joe Cressy, one of those who pushed for lower speed limits this past decade, said that the findings show the need to reduce them more broadly.
“Enough tinkering around the edges, with a street here or a street there,” he said. “I think research like this demonstrates and suggests that it’s time for us to be a little bolder if we’re truly going to protect the health and safety of our residents.”
The study used police data from 2013 through 2018 to assess the number and severity of collisions involving pedestrians on streets where the limit was dropped. Researchers found that, prior to the change, these streets averaged 1.99 such collisions for each 100 kilometres of road a month. After the limits were reduced, that average dropped to 1.43.
The researchers filtered out factors, such as watch-your-speed signs, that could have had an impact on driver behaviour.
They did not, however, have access to pedestrian counts, making it possible that their results are understated. The paper notes that “reduced vehicle speeds may increase pedestrian volumes” – because streets that feel safer can motivate more people to walk – “so the local safety effect is likely conservatively estimated.”
Dr. Howard called pedestrian safety a key public health issue in Toronto. An average of 40 people on foot have been killed in each of the past five years. These deaths have continued at roughly the same rate since Toronto introduced, in 2016, a Vision Zero road safety plan, with the goal of eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries.
Pedestrian deaths tend to happen more on roads with faster traffic, in keeping with research showing that, on average, chance of death goes up 11 per cent with every one-kilometre increase in impact speed. While a person hit at 30 kilometres an hour is overwhelmingly likely to survive, someone hit at 50 km/hr is probably going to die.
While the Vision Zero plan has been beefed up repeatedly, council has repeatedly decided against city-wide speed limit reductions. Shortly before the Toronto and East York Community Council voted to lower speeds, Mayor John Tory, who does not sit on that body, said he did not support blanket reductions that make people “feel better” temporarily.
“Then you look and say ‘is it being enforced, is it actually being effective? Is it achieving the ends that are stated when it’s under review?’ and the answer comes up no,” the mayor said in 2015.
The study results were not a surprise to Michael Black, who sits on the steering committee of the advocacy group Walk Toronto, adding that he had seen positive results in other cities that had lowered speed limits. But he was pleased to have local proof of the phenomenon to show reluctant politicians.
“Everything points towards the wisdom of implementing consistent, blanket-style speed limit reductions throughout the whole city,” Mr. Black said. “I really don’t think that we’re going to make a lot of progress on Vision Zero unless we get serious about blanket speed limits”