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Lofty Pedestrian Goal Requires Unseen Vision

Given Toronto's instincts, does the city have what it takes to pull off a Vision Zero pedestrian strategy?

Photo by Bryson Gilbert from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by Bryson Gilbert from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.


At a press conference in North York this morning, Public Works Chair Jaye Robinson (Ward 26, Don Valley West) announced that Toronto would implement some version of Vision Zero.

Vision Zero is the name of a safety initiative that aims to eventually eliminate traffic fatalities. First adopted by Sweden in 1997, it has since spread around the world, including a version implemented in New York City. Other cities with their own version of the plan include Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The core assumption is that traffic deaths and injuries are preventable, and therefore unacceptable. Street design should be done with human error in mind, and transportation engineering should keep its most vulnerable road users (pedestrians) in mind.

All of which sounds good when taken as a set of principles. Whether Toronto can show the political courage to implement the steps needed to achieve the goal is another story.

Robinson mentioned some version of Vision Zero as part of a plan to reduce traffic congestion. The latter has been something of a priority for John Tory—he holds more press conferences about the subject than any other. But those two goals will come into conflict with one another, because getting to the eventual goal of zero pedestrian fatalities will require prioritizing pedestrians over cars, and we haven’t seen much of that from City Hall lately.

A large body of research shows that when cars travel at 30 km/h or less, the odds of a pedestrian fatality is dramatically reduced. In 2012, Toronto’s chief medical officer of health recommended that all residential streets have speed limits of 30 km/h, with a 40 km/h limit on other streets unless otherwise noted.

Then-Public Works Chair Denzil Minnan-Wong, who is now the Deputy Mayor, did not like Dr. David McKeown’s study and recommendation. At the time, he said:

“It seems like the Medical Officer of Health is spitballing 30 kilometres an hour because it reduces accidents. So why don’t we reduce it to to 20, or 10? Why don’t we all walk? How reasonable is it? Which of the major cities do you know have 30 kilometres an hour as the standard speed limit?”

In June 2015, Toronto-East York Community Council decided to implement 30 km/h as the standard speed limit for the downtown core, down from 40 km/h. (Suburban areas have decided to go on a street-by-street basis). But the 2016 budget lacks the $1.1 million in funds needed to make and post the new 30 km/h signs. This is the same City Hall that justifies spending an extra $500 million to save a couple thousand drivers two to three minutes on their East Gardiner commute.

Hopefully Toronto does implement some version of Vision Zero. It defies logic that we tolerate 50 to 60 traffic fatalities a year, a total slightly greater or less than the city’s homicides, depending on the year. These deaths don’t tend to be negligent pedestrians on their cellphones, either—the majority of pedestrian fatalities are seniors, and cross at the crosswalk.

Solutions like reducing the speed limit, building pedestrian bridges, more thoughtful road design, and public education can work. By implementing various measures like these, over the last five years Sweden has cut their traffic fatalities in half.

Like many cities, Toronto can be really good at agreeing to smart policies in principle, but then fail to follow through. Where the vision in something like Torontofied Vision Zero will come in is in leadership to follow through on a plan that works, even when there’s resistance to any change in the status quo.

This shouldn’t be a Cars v. Pedestrians issue, either. Not everyone drives or bikes, but every resident, as the urban planning adage goes, starts and ends their day as a pedestrian. Ensuring that our cityscape works better for pedestrians is good for everyone, and even if we have to overcome some very Toronto-like instincts to get there, it just makes sense.

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