When Toronto’s “Vision Zero” road safety plan was unveiled in the summer of 2016, it aimed to reduce traffic deaths and serious injuries by 20 per cent. In the face of public outrage over such timidity, the plan was modified to match its name, with the formal goal of having zero of these incidents.
Two years later, the city is not achieving even the less ambitious initial goal. Close to 100 pedestrians and cyclists have been killed on Toronto streets since the plan was introduced, a pace that suggests no sustained improvement.
“Vision Zero is a long-term strategy,” warned Barbara Gray, head of the city’s transportation services department. “We will be working towards zero for quite some time.”
Another three deaths were announced by police in barely more than 24 hours this week: a female pedestrian killed in a hit-and-run, a male cyclist hit last month who died later and a female cyclist killed in a collision with a large truck.
The spate of fatalities in what has already been a bad year helped spark an outcry. Former chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat called the situation “unbearable” and urbanist Richard Florida wrote an impassioned article in which he described Toronto as becoming too dangerous for him to ride a bicycle.
“The struggle is not in finding solutions because we don’t have to re-invent the wheel,” said Michael Black, one of the founders of the advocacy group Walk Toronto. “The solutions are apparent and are being implemented in other jurisdictions.”
Based on expert advice, input from advocates and the example of other cities, here are some quick changes Toronto could undertake:
Give pedestrians a head-start
A leading pedestrian interval is a traffic signal that gives those on foot a green a few seconds before cars can go, on the theory that people who have walked into the intersection are more visible and less likely to be hit.
Toronto is planning a modest expansion to its handful of LPIs, a far cry from the massive implementation done in New York, where the city has added more than 2,200 of these since 2014. According to the publication CityLab, about 20 per cent of that city’s signalized intersections now have LPIs.
“A 2016 study of 104 intersections by the NYC Department of Transportation found that pedestrian and bike fatalities and severe injuries declined by nearly 40 percent at locations where LPIs have been installed,” wrote Laura Bliss.
Slow down drivers
The research is unequivocal: the risk of a pedestrian or cyclist dying in a collision goes up sharply as driver speed increases. The math is even more unforgiving for seniors, who are consistently over-represented in Toronto road deaths.
According to data reported by ProPublica, a 70-year-old hit at about 65 kilometres per hour is nearly twice as likely to die as a 30-year-old hit at that same speed.
Transportation theory holds that people are more likely to follow other cues than just the speed limit, though, so a reduction would have to be coupled with enforcement and road redesign.
Enforce the law
A Global News investigation last year revealed a rapid drop-off in the number of traffic tickets written by Toronto police.
This decline started in 2013, according to data obtained by the news outlet, and by last year there were about half the tickets being written as in 2011. A traffic police spokesman, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, said then that one reason was a shift from “a quantity model to a quality model.”
Pedestrian safety advocates note that the drop coincides with a rise in pedestrian fatalities. And they argue that driver misbehaviour such as running red lights, crowding pedestrians at intersections and being distracted at the wheel have proliferated in Toronto.
Modify the road
At a meeting Tuesday of the city’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee (PWIC), a senior transportation staffer explained to councillors that the most effective way to slow down drivers was to change the design of the road itself.
A number of cities have experimented with quick ways to implement this. Calgary has a pre-fabricated concrete piece that can be bolted into place at an intersection, slowing cars and reducing the distance pedestrians need to cross. Winnipeg has been experimenting with quick-to-install barriers to delineate bicycle lanes. Many places use simple posts to make drivers take corners more slowly.
To date, Toronto’s road safety plan has relied mostly on signs and paint on the road. But Ms. Gray, the transportation head, said that the city would be doing quick design changes at some intersections, as part of a series of more substantive modifications.
“We’re rolling out what we can roll out as quickly as we can get it out on the street, and that is going to be signs and paint,” she said. “The infrastructure pieces, we’re still putting those out … it’s not as quick as I would like it to go, I’ll be honest with you, it’s a bit of a process here.”
Change the decision-makers
When PWIC member and councillor Giorgio Mammoliti opined Tuesday that people shouldn’t bicycle on the road, the comment exemplified to critics the concern that the committee, which oversees road safety, doesn’t have the right people on it.
“On every file for Vision Zero, whether it’s speed bumps or traffic lights or lowering speed limits or installing bike lanes, we have councillors like Mammoliti who believe that the status quo is acceptable, and it’s not,” Councillor Joe Cressy said.
Mr. Mammoliti argues that he is representing what he believes is the majority of people who don’t want bicycle lanes on city roads. To those who don’t want him to air those views, he added, “tough bananas.”
When Mayor John Tory was asked whether such a councillor should sit on PWIC, he did not respond directly, saying only that he rejected such an opinion. “To say that cyclists don’t belong on roads is a view that sort of belongs back in the 1950s,” he said.