Toronto's First Step to Reduce Pedestrian Fatalities
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Toronto’s First Step to Reduce Pedestrian Fatalities

After two recent years where traffic fatalities exceeded homicides, City Hall takes the initial steps towards a Vision Zero-type strategy.

This November 2014 photo shows Finch Avenue West near Driftwood Avenue. The area is classified as an arterial road with 60 km/h speed limits despite the high residential population and neighbourhood institutions nearby. Photo courtesy of Albert Koehl.

A round table discussion in City Hall chambers, hosted by the Public Works Committee Chair, with Transportation Services and key stakeholder groups from all over the city present, all looking to eliminate traffic fatalities in Toronto.

This meeting would’ve been almost unimaginable last term, which saw head-scratching decisions like the removal of the Jarvis bike lanes while the mayor presided over one of the worst years (2013) for traffic deaths in the city’s history.

Sadly, 2015 was another record breaking year for traffic fatalities, topping even 2013’s numbers at 64—including 38 pedestrians, and four cyclists; there were more traffic fatalities than homicides. It’s sobering news, but city council seems to finally be responding to it, if Monday’s road safety discussion is any indication.

Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon (Ward 32, Beaches-East York) says the meeting was “fantastic”—seeing so many stakeholders present at the same time—and she appreciates Public Works Chair Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West) and Transportation Services General Manager Stephen Buckley for organizing it.

“I hope it’s not the end,” says McMahon. “So many of these times we organize these big events and then it kind of dies off afterwards. I hope it’s the first of many.”

Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto, is cautiously optimistic.

“One of the things that was quite encouraging was that the mission or the approach has changed from the original way it was constructed.”

Kolb says the draft vision switched during the proceedings from general road safety to a commitment to aim to eliminate all fatalities and serious injuries on city streets.

Effectively, this would mean embracing the Vision Zero mentality already officially adopted by many major European and North American cities, including New York and, more recently, Edmonton, to name a few.

The Vision Zero agenda holds that no traffic fatality is acceptable, and recommends using a combination of education, legislation, and redesigned infrastructure to create safer streets and roads for all users.

“It’s going to take work,” says Kolb. “We’re talking about transforming our city streets and, quite frankly, I think that’s a generational project.”

It’s true. Some of the interventions required to meet Vision Zero-scale goals may require substantial infrastructure investment—think redesigned, or even brand new intersections, traffic calming measures, and a minimum cycling grid. These things carry a price tag.

So far, NYC’s Vision Zero program has seen success, with a 22 per cent drop in traffic fatalities since 2013. But that city was prepared to put money into the project, with an expected $115 million in new capital spending.

Robinson deserves credit for shepherding this plan along, and Mayor John Tory has also identified traffic fatalities as a priority. But, as we approach a budget where a long list of announced priorities are likely to go unfunded, this administration seems a bit like the person at the bar who orders nachos for the table, then splits before the bill arrives.

Nice gesture. Where’s the money?

To that end, Kolb and McMahon both agree the city needs to set timelines for its own ambitions.

“We can meet this Vision Zero goal, but we do need to set a timeline,” says Kolb. “Otherwise it’s just another statement that has been made that sits, and will inevitably wind up on a shelf, collecting dust.”

Still, there is a quick, relatively cheap win available, says Albert Koehl, a lawyer and member of the Chief Coroner’s 2010 expert panel on pedestrian deaths.

“If you’re not addressing speeds, then you’re not using the most effective way of reducing road deaths,” says Koehl.

“That, for me, is the starting point of measuring any credible road safety plan.”

Koehl points out New York City reduced their default speeds.

Toronto East York Community Council has set the default speed limit on local roads to 30 km/h—a speed at which pedestrians have a 90 per cent chance of surviving a collision, compared to a mere 50 per cent at 45 km/h.

“If Toronto’s going to be proactive about it: sit down with Queen’s Park, and get them to give them the right to reduce the default speeds,” says Koehl.

Koehl adds he’s shocked by streets, considered ‘arterial’ by the city, with 60 km/h posted limits, which are home to many high-rise residents.

“It’s not an arterial road if you’ve got to go to the church across the road, or to the school, or to the shopping centre,” says Koehl.

“A lot of those roads, like Victoria Park, and Finch, and so on: there’s a real equity issue, because a lot of those roads, being suburban roads, have lower income populations along there. So I think it’s a real social justice issue.”

Transportation Services recommends reducing speed limits in concert with other, pricier, traffic calming methods. Koehl, however, says the city just needs to drop the limits. Anything else is an excuse for delay.

Maybe we are ready for a culture shift towards safe streets. We’ll get a clearer picture when a full road safety report appears before the Public Works Committee this spring.