Patrick Brown alongside 4 other road safety experts gathered to discuss the City of Toronto’s newly approved road safety plan. With all the vulnerable road user injuries and deaths over the past couple of years this new plan is exactly what the city needs.
With the revamped road safety plan garnering unanimous support from city council last week, Toronto is at a turning point when it comes to life – and death – on our streets. Metro invited prominent pedestrian and cyclist advocates in the city to our office to discuss why the road safety conversation is gaining traction, and what’s need to ensure all that talk translates into action.
In 2012, a suggestion by Toronto’s medical health officer to lower speed limits was dismissed outright by city council. Four years later, a road safety plan containing speed reductions across the city was passed unanimously by many of the same politicians who once scoffed at the idea.
Some even moved motions asking for further speed reductions in their wards.
“I was impressed by how little opposition there was,” said environmental lawyer and Bells on Bloor co-founder Albert Koehl. “That’s the result of people saying that death and injury on our roads is no longer acceptable.”
Bike Law Canada founder Patrick Brown said Metro’s recent Toronto’s Deadly Streets helped move the safety conversation forward.
“I’ve never seen such a media campaign,” he said. “It’s changing perceptions. Even when I’m sitting at the dinner table now, people want to talk about pedestrians, cars and cyclists.”
The road plan may have been approved, but council must still find more than $50 million in the budget to implement it. They’ve also pledged to revisit the plan on a regular basis and look for ways to bolster it.
Here’s what some of Toronto’s most prominent voices for road safety had to say about holding our politicians to account and making sure the conversation around our deadly streets keeps moving in the right direction.
“We are all pedestrians”
Safety advocates were shocked by how few politicians in Toronto are willing to take up the cause of walking.
“One hundred per cent of voters are walking, so it seems an obvious choice for a politician to become the champion of pedestrians,” said 8-80 Cities chair Gil Penalosa.
Whereas Toronto councillors have often sought political capital by catering to drivers, Penalosa said a politician willing to fight for more walkable communities could garner significant support.
“We need to make the case that walking and cycling means better economic development, better environment and better mobility,” he said.
Accessibility is more than an “afterthought”
The needs of residents with disabilities are not adequately addressed by the road safety plan, said Daniella Levy-Pinto, a representative from Walk Toronto who is blind.
“There are intersections in this city where I’m afraid to cross alone,” she said.
Levy-Pinto urged residents to put pressure on politicians to improve road accessibility. In particular, she wants to see audible pedestrian signals installed at more intersections.
“If there’s a light, there should be an audible signal,” she said.
A “systematic” approach
Rather than the piecemeal approach contained in the current plan, safety advocates interviewed by Metro called for things like lower speed limits and right-turn restrictions be implemented city-wide, or at least in the downtown core.
“It’s easier to implement, as well as to enforce if it’s general,” Penalosa said.
Levy-Pinto said she’d feel more comfortable crossing at intersections downtown if she knew drivers wouldn’t be turning right at the same time.
Brown suggested making the entire downtown core a community safety zone, where fines for things like distracted driving would be increased.
“It sends a message that this is an area that is frequented by pedestrians and cyclists and therefore you’re subject to different rules,” he said.
Stop the blame game
Smith Lea was dismayed by how much of the road safety plan focused on education campaigns. Such campaigns, she said, lead to an unproductive discussion about who’s to blame when a serious or fatal collision occurs.
“The vision of Vision Zero is about shifting away from this orientation about who’s at fault. It’s irrelevant. We know there are going to be collisions and deaths so let’s just figure out how to stop it from happening,” she said.
Rather than focus on the fault of road users, Smith Lea said the responsibility for safety lies with transportation engineers and planners who should design safer streets.
“Humanizing” the discussion
Penalosa and Koehl both said they were buoyed by an increasing focus on the victims of traffic collisions as human beings, rather than just nameless or faceless statistics.
“We’re humanizing the discussion,” Penalosa said. “By saying the victim was a 73-year-old father of three, we make people stop and think ‘hey, that could be my grandfather.’”
“If we spent more time focusing on families and the burden of grief, we wouldn’t have such a hard time fighting for safer streets,” Koehl said.
Benchmark better cities
During the road safety debate, city staff pointed out that Toronto has a lower per capita road fatality rate than other major cities, including New York and Chicago. But rather than compare itself to cities with worse track records, safety advocates urged Toronto to compete with itself.
“In Copenhagen, 41 out of 100 people move around by bicycle, but they’re striving to get to 50,” Penalosa said. “One symptom of being a great city is wanting to be better all the time.”
5 Road Safety Experts:
Albert Koehl, lawyer and co-founder of Bells on Bloor) When Koehl was a child, a friend was killed while doing his paper route. It happened on a 60 km/h road, but “no one asked about the speed.” He’s since become an advocate for lower speed limits in the city.
(Daniella Levy-Pinto, Walk Toronto) Levy-Pinto, who is blind, has been nearly hit by drivers making right turns at intersections three times in four months. She feels less safe walking lately, saying drivers have become “more impatient.”
(Gil Penalosa, 8-80 Cities) Penalosa was recently hit by the mirror of a passing truck while riding his bike. “What’s the difference between injured or seriously injured? Often, it’s just luck,” he says.
(Nancy Smith Lea, Toronto Centre for Active Transportation) Smith Lea became a cyclist after moving to Toronto, and says her activism is motivated “by a love of cycling.” She’s been hit four by cars four times while riding her bike; each time, she had the right of way.
(Patrick Brown, founder of Bike Law Canada) A decade ago, Brown represented the family of a man who was killed by a turning driver, who received a paltry $85 fine. “In a situation where a human life was taken, it just seemed so wrong,” the lawyer said.