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Toronto N.Y. transportation commissioner: There’s a public hunger for better options than the automobile

Last year New York had its lowest number of traffic deaths since records began more than a century ago. It’s a success that bucks national trends and suggests the city’s major investment in its Vision Zero program, which aims to eliminate deaths and serious injuries on the road, is paying off.

New York Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg was in Toronto this week for a road safety event put on Wednesday evening by the City Building Institute at Ryerson University. Earlier that day, she sat down with Oliver Moore of The Globe to talk about Vision Zero, the power of mourning families to frame the road-safety debate and why she was making time to tour the King Street transit-priority pilot.

Globe and Mail: What’s the interest in King Street?

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Polly Trottenberg: We’re looking at shutting down part of a massive subway line that doesn’t have a lot of redundant lines nearby. There’s been a lot of debate about wanting to make sure we can run really high bus frequencies and have them not get mired in traffic. But those are major corridors – residential buildings, huge institutions, a lot of commercial and retail. How do we ensure that those residents and those businesses can have deliveries and some curbside access? We’ve been reading about what was happening on King Street, we’ve been hearing so far it seems to be working pretty well. We’re hoping it has some good lessons for us.

GM: In cities, the culture wars can be on how to use roads. The current use is seen by many people as the right use because it’s the one they’ve always had. Change is hard. How do you get past that culture war aspect?

PT: You’re totally right. Change is really hard. And I think both cities, New York and even more so Toronto, there’s a strong car culture. As you get further out our city becomes more and more auto-dependent. So the debates about streets, in parts that are more auto-dependent, sometimes the fights can be ferocious. But there is also, I think, in New York right now, growing consensus about Vision Zero, about a desire to make the streets safer. There’s a hunger for better options that aren’t the automobile.

GM: In 2017 New York had the lowest number of road deaths since records started being kept, basically the entirety of the automobile era. How?

PT: The mayor I serve campaigned on Vision Zero and really put leadership and focus on it. He has given us a lot of resources and sometimes real political cover to do the things we need to do. But that said, there’s been a lot of work happening for years. There started to be a realization that we needed to start re-shifting the car culture in New York.

GM: I would say nobody actually wants people dying on the road. But people also want to get home in a hurry, they don’t want to be delayed. How can that circle be squared?

PT: It takes culture change. Public education helped make people realize there’s a connection, that driving fast on dense city streets is not necessarily a victim-less crime. The city is obligated to improve the designs of our roadways, to make it harder to speed, to make it feel more appropriate to drive at the safe speed. But it’s also for drivers to think about what they’re doing behind the wheel of their car.

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GM: How important is the role of safety advocates in reframing that debate?

PT: I cannot overstate it: Families for Safe Streets are people who have lost friends, daughters, husbands, wives, nieces, nephews. And they are among the most powerful advocacy forces I’ve ever seen in politics. To get at that dichotomy of how you feel when you’re behind the wheel versus where everybody’s heart is, that we want our streets to be safer, you really need the human beings who’ve lost loved ones. It reframes everything.

This interview has been edited and condensed

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