It was a terrible crash. Thursday afternoon, a driver in a black SUV reportedly ran a red light on fast-moving Bay Street, running down pedestrians before smashing other vehicles. The wrecks were all over the news. Among the seven people injured were a 69-year-old and a baby.
Terrible, and familiar. Torontonians are used to this kind of carnage. It may seem there’s nothing we can do about it.
But there is, and it starts with redesigning roads to make drivers slow down. This weekend, a temporary project on Danforth Avenue is showing what that might look like – if Toronto’s leaders have the guts to make it happen.
“We want to build a prototype of a street that exemplifies the city’s aspiration of getting fatalities down to zero,” explained Amanda O’Rourke, executive director of the local non-profit group 8 80 Cities. They are organizing this weekend’s event with American “tactical urbanism” specialists Better Block Foundation, local neighbourhood groups and the city.
Ms. O’Rourke added: “We want to demonstrate the design solutions – the proven ones – that make our streets safer.”
Yes: Design of roads makes streets safer. Cars moving at slower speeds have fewer collisions, and those are less likely to be fatal. The physical layout of roads alters drivers’ behaviour. Every driver knows this intuitively. When a road is wide and clear, you want to go fast.
Changing a street doesn’t take much. When I visited in rush hour Thursday morning, volunteers had painted a new bike lane and set up rows of planter boxes that divided it from the car traffic. The wide swath of Danforth now had an extra swath of pedestrian space; cafe tables and benches were going in. It was nice. “There are economic and social benefits to complete streets,” Ms. O’Rourke told me.
The shift was dramatic. This part of Danforth Avenue usually feels like a highway with street parking, two wide lanes and a centre left-turn lane. The speed limit is 40 kilometres an hour and drivers routinely ignore it, zipping dangerously through a busy commercial strip. Just as they do on every other arterial road in the city, including Bay Street.
And when they hit pedestrians and cyclists, too often people die. In 2018, 40 pedestrians were killed on Toronto streets.
In 2016, the city moved to address this carnage through a so-called Vision Zero campaign – adopting a Swedish term, though, not initially adopting its goal of cutting fatalities to zero.
The progress has been much too slow. That’s because some councillors keep framing the issue as a “balance” between competing interests. On one hand, slowing roads will add minutes to people’s car commutes; on the other hand, people are having their bodies smashed and dying painful deaths. Mayor John Tory has made some appropriate noises recently on the issue, but hasn’t committed much political capital toward making change.
This framing has to change. And the Danforth project has the support of local councillor Brad Bradford, a former city planner who understands the issue. On road safety, “the most effective thing we can do is road design,” he said. “We need to get away from the 1950s conversation that streets are about moving as many cars as possible, and focus on moving people.”
Friday morning, I was standing on Danforth Avenue speaking to Audrey Kvedaras, of the Danforth East Community Association. As we talked, two women – one middle-aged, the other elderly – crossed arm in arm in the middle of the block. “You see?” Ms. Kvedaras said. “The traffic is slowed down enough that people are able to cross here. That doesn’t usually happen.”
This scene seemed many miles from the destruction and suffering on Bay Street. And I knew which street I’d rather be on.