Toronto’s Killing Fields
Brought to you by cars cars cars and the politicians who support them over people and places.
By no means do I wish to make light of the killing fields of Cambodia. The situation and the millions killed by the Kilmer Rouge are in no way comparable to the seniors and children being killed on our speeding streets. But deaths are deaths - tragic, gut-wrenching and in the case of Toronto pedestrians and cyclists almost always avoidable. So yes, I believe our streets are “killing fields”.
When I started getting interested in city building I heard about Vision Zero (VZ). I learned that the concept was conceived in Sweden and approved by their parliament in 1997. I learned that it was a road safety project “that aims to achieve a road system with no fatalities or serious injuries involving road traffic”. Importantly a core principle of the vision is that “life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society” (faster drive times?). By 2014 deaths in Sweden had dropped from 440 in 1997 to 270 (-39%) despite an increase in car traffic. Their target for 2020 is 220, but recently their progress has stalled (distracted driving due to mobile phones?), which has caused them to make further improvements to their plan. I was so impressed with what I had read about Sweden’s plan that I visited with two of the plan’s architects in Malmö Sweden last August. I came away very impressed with their lessons learned and their commitment to the life and health of their citizens.
In 2013 NYC Mayor de Blasio launched a very ambitious Vision Zero plan. In 2017 deaths dropped from 184 at the start of their program to 101 (-45%) - the lowest number since the city started recording deaths in 1910. On June 13, 2016 Toronto mayor Tory announced a plan to reduce the number of people killed by road traffic by 20%. In the face of immediate public outcry, he recanted and agreed to the Vision Zero objective. Two weeks ago, I attended a Vision Zero symposium in Toronto and listened to councillor Jaye Robinson declare that Toronto’s road deaths are “trending in the right direction”. Definitely not so! In 2016, there were 44 pedestrian and cyclist deaths on our roads. In 2017, there were 46; and already this year we are at 11 deaths which means we are trending for over 50 deaths on our roads in 2018.
Based on all that I have learned about Vision Zero I originally thought I would write a very in-depth post about the subject. However, I learned that there are a lot of people that know a lot more about the subject than I. So instead of a lengthy treatise on the subject, here are my “Top Ten Thoughts on Vision Zero and Related Subjects”:
1. Speed kills.The human tolerance for a pedestrian hit by a car is approximately 30 km/h. Anything over that and they usually die. 90% of our cycling and pedestrian fatalities occurred on streets with speed limits over 50 km/h. The VZ people I met in Malmö said that lower speed limits were one of the most important things they implemented.
2. Toronto needs a multimodal approach to solve our transit problems. Yes, cars will always play a role, but transit, cycling and walking need to very much be in the mix. More space for active mobility is more SAFE space for all.
3. A full cycling grid of protected lanes will take “tons” of cars off the road.In Copenhagen, almost 50% of its citizens travel by bike. Imagine how much safer our streets would be with more bikes and less cars.
4. In addition to a very tepid Vision Zero plan we have an even more tepid climate action plan. Cars contribute 30% of all our carbon emissions. So, if cars don’t kill you when you are walking or cycling then their significant contribution to climate change ultimately will.
5. Traffic tickets for safety related charges (speeding, running red lights, disregarding signs) have steadily declined since 2013. They are now about one half the level they were in 2011. Better enforcement is key to safe streets. The province will soon be approving red light cameras and other forms of automatic enforcement measures. I hope Toronto deploys them aggressively.
6. Travel time for drivers has to stop being the most important metric for decision making. Another minute in a car shouldn’t trump pedestrian and cyclist safety.
7. Walking and cycling are great for your health. A recent British study determined that cyclists have a 52% lower risk of dying from heart disease and a 40% lower risk of dying from cancer. Walking delivers similar health benefits including strengthening muscles, weight loss and regulating blood pressure. If there was a drug that delivered these benefits we would all take it.
8. School zones are particularly dangerous for children. The 2018 city budget earmarks monies for improving traffic around only 20 schools, but we have over 500 schools in Toronto. At this pace and assuming at least 200 of those schools have dangerous traffic situations it will take 10 years before the problems are reduced.
9. We won’t make real progress on VZ targets until we invest in safe street designs. There are lots of proven initiatives that can help make our streets safer: car free zones, ban right turns on red, widen sidewalks, introduce medians, reduce traffic lanes, add bump outs, narrow traffic lanes, and yes plant trees. But please, out with the ridiculous and unsafe sharrows.
10. So as Yoda says: “Do or do not. There is no try.” Council constantly hedges and makes tradeoffs to keep car drivers happy. If council approves a water-downed version of Transform Yonge then they clearly don’t support VZ.
Unfortunately, there will continue to be loud, status quo, debates about safe streets until Toronto elects a city council that gets it, or Mayor Tory gets “woke” to the importance of making safe streets a signature platform during his time in office. My hope is that safe streets become one of the major issues in our October election. And that in Wards across Toronto citizens challenge candidates regarding their position on road safety. Then they vote according to what they hear from those candidates.
So again - Vision Zero: “life and death can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society” Mr. Mayor? Council? Toronto?
For a better and much much safer Toronto.
Richard, a passionate city builder.
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