How Public Transit Plays a Role in Traffic Safety
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How Public Transit Plays a Role in Traffic Safety

Your children are safer on the TTC than in your car. And so are you.

Your children are safer on the TTC than in your car. And so are you.

Recent attention to the appalling numbers of Toronto automobile drivers hitting cyclists and pedestrians, including those standing on the sidewalk, has reminded us how dangerous the city can be for vulnerable road users. To some, the implication is that we are safe, or at least safer, inside a car.

When a New Jersey Transit commuter train crashed into Hoboken Terminal on September 29, more than 100 passengers were injured and one person died. The large numbers and the dramatic pictures of the wrecked station are frightening. When such horrible events occur, they get a lot of media attention, drawn out by follow-up investigations into their causes. The scale of the damage may lead us to think that public transit is dangerous and we should retreat into our cars. This would be wrong.

There is no question that a steel cage is stronger than a spring jacket as a defence against a couple tonnes of steel hitting you at high speed. Nevertheless, automobiles are not impenetrable fortresses, and they are the site and cause of many more casualties than all public transit vehicles put together.

The number of motor vehicle collisions in Canada is (still) rising. While injuries and fatalities are declining nationally (which is good news), the numbers are still troubling. Canada’s rates for fatalities per capita and by distance travelled are among the highest in the world.

According to Transport Canada, almost 150,000 people were killed or injured in motor vehicle collisions in Canada in 2014 [PDF].

Forty per cent of the fatalities from collisions are not the drivers of cars or motorcycles. They are passengers, cyclists, and pedestrians. And without minimizing the deaths of cyclists and pedestrians, it is worth underscoring that more than twice as many passengers suffer injuries. Statistically speaking, you are in greater danger if you are inside a car than if you are walking about the city.

Twenty-five per cent of passengers killed in collisions are age 19 or younger. About 22,000 of those young people were injured in a collision in 2014, and 192 were killed.

Commuter trains, buses, streetcars, and subway trains are all safer forms of transit with much lower rates of injury and death than automobiles; they are heavier and stronger vehicles, they are larger and more visible, they often travel in their own right-of-ways, and (perhaps most importantly) they are operated by highly trained drivers.

All of these factors produce a much stronger safety record: these vehicles are less likely to be in a collision, and in the rare occasion that they are, their passengers are less likely to get hurt.

A September 2016 report from the American Public Transportation Association [PDF] argues that we need to start thinking about the role public transit can play in public safety.

Why? Because the contribution public transit makes in reducing injury and death is substantial.

According to the APTA report, as measured by distance, public transit has less than one-tenth the casualty rate of cars per kilometre travelled. Measured per capita, car-oriented communities suffer more than five times as many deaths as communities that have good public transit.

The most recent major incident on a TTC vehicle was in 2013: a bus passenger was killed and 12 others injured when a distracted driver drove a cube van into the TTC bus, which was not moving at the time. The most recent major incident on Toronto streets involving a car was probably today. Maybe yesterday.

More public transit ridership even reduces unrelated auto collisions. The higher the number of rides per capita, the lower the traffic fatality rate. Some of this is because of transit-oriented planning: there is less room for risky driving behavior on roads that are designed to accommodate multiple modes of travel. That makes it safer for car drivers and passengers, as well as cyclists and pedestrians.

A strong public transit system also means there is a viable alternative to driving when, for example, you’ve been drinking. Drunk driving is still responsible for 25 per cent of deaths on Ontario roads [PDF].

But improving service on public transit costs money, you might say. You would be right. But the insurance coverage of car repairs, the congestion delays of major collisions, injury, long-term disability, and death are all significant costs too. It turns out that, in the end, they cost more than public transit investments do.

Public transit is a cost-efficient way to improve traffic safety. Public safety improvement hasn’t commonly been an explicit goal of transit, and health care and other savings are not usually factored into the cost-benefit analysis of transit. But the reduction in injury and death is so dramatic, it should be considered a leading asset of public transit, along with economic and environmental benefits.

(It’s not insignificant that reducing the number of private automobiles on the road also reduces pollution, which is killing us too.)

We have a serious public health problem in Toronto with dangerous drivers. Public transit can be a valuable element of any public safety program. More buses, more streetcars, and more routes of service will get more people where they want to go, and more safely too. Public safety is yet another reason why we need to invest in transit in this city, not cut its budget.