Despite its status as a global city, a city that’s often ranked as one of the world’s safest, a city that likes to think of itself as both progressive and a top place to do business, Toronto does a lousy job of protecting its residents from injury and death on its roads.
Although there have been a few positive steps — the new King Street Pilot, launched last week, or the Bloor Street bike lanes, made permanent between Avenue Road and Shaw Street in October — Toronto does far too little to protect pedestrians and cyclists in this city. The installation of sidewalks in residential neighbourhoods are often opposed by local residents resistant to losing driveway space on which to park their cars, or unhappy about having to clear sidewalks of snow and ice. Affluent neighbourhoods might be dotted with “drive slow – kids at play” lawn signs, but their residents and elected representatives will oppose new bike lanes and lower speed limits on the arterial roads they use to commute downtown.
The general idea of reducing road violence is a popular one. But specific actions are often opposed. The city’s own Vision Zero strategy — weak as it is — is a good indication of the ambivalence to road safety we have in this city.
Vision Zero, which originated in Sweden, is the road safety philosophy that no loss of life is acceptable, and that all road users are human, that humans make mistakes, and road design must minimize the impacts of those mistakes. Complete streets that accommodate all road users (pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, and transit users), and road engineering measures to protect pedestrians and cyclists and reduce traffic speeds are in the spirit of Vision Zero.
But when Mayor John Tory and Public Works and Infrastructure Committee Chair Jaye Robinson (Councillor, Ward 25) originally announced the city’s Vision Zero plan in June 2016, it merely aimed to reduce serious collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists by 20 per cent over a ten year period, allocating $68.1 million over five years. The plan itself was modest. After a social media backlash and criticisms from active transportation activists (including Walk Toronto, of which I am a co-founder and a steering Committee member), the plan was revised, with an additional $10 million allocated and the goal to eliminate serious collisions, rather than simply reduce that number.
One of the specific measures in the city’s Vision Zero plan is the creation of seniors safety zones, areas with high volumes of older adult pedestrians and higher risk of collision. Older adults make up a majority of pedestrian deaths in Toronto; 37 of the 43 pedestrians killed in 2016 were over the age of 55. According to the City of Toronto’s Vision Zero Road Safety Plan, seniors safety zones will feature changes intended to improve pedestrian safety, such as lower speed limits, improved street lighting, advanced and extended walk signals at signalized intersections, red light cameras and radar speed signs, improved sidewalks and additional crosswalks, and increased enforcement.
Twelve seniors safety zones were designated across the entire city of Toronto. Five are in the old City of Toronto, including Dundas Street at Bloor, Dundas at College/Lansdowne, and Dundas at Spadina. Six are in Scarborough, and one is in North York.
Senior Safety Zone sign and 40 km/h speed limit, Danforth Avenue at Coxwell
On Danforth Avenue, two senior safety zones were identified: near Coxwell Avenue and near Main Street. The speed limit on Danforth Avenue was reduced from 50 km/h to 40 km/h in 2016, but few other visible changes are apparent. Danforth Avenue is a five lane street, including a centre lane for left turns, and is paralleled by a subway line. The curb lanes on Danforth are unusually wide, and are used for parking outside of weekday rush hours. There are no bike lanes on Danforth either.
Despite the 40 km/h speed limit, the wide lanes, dedicated turning lanes, and the absence of daytime local transit promote high speeds. The design speed of Danforth is simply too high; simply reducing the speed limit and putting up “senior safety zone” signs will do far too little.
Eglinton Avenue East, between Midland Avenue and Danforth Road in Scarborough, is another senior safety zone. Two pedestrians were killed on this stretch of road in 2016.
Eglinton Avenue through Scarborough is seven lanes wide, including a centre left-turn lane to cross streets and commercial properties that line the wide street. Traffic signals are typically 500 metres apart; many TTC bus stops on Eglinton Avenue East are located far from a designated crosswalk. Buses are frequent between Midland and Brimley; four frequent routes feed into the Kennedy subway station to the west. Again, there is no cycling infrastructure to be found.
The senior safety zone here is a joke. Not one safety intervention was made here. The yellow-and-black safety zone signs that read “drive slowly” are merely advisory, and do not stand out among other traffic and commercial signage. The 60 km/h speed limit was not changed, and intersections were not altered at all to improve pedestrian safety.
Several residential side streets off of Eglinton, such as Winter Avenue, do not even feature sidewalks. The signs might say “seniors safety zone” but there is no evidence that pedestrian safety is taken seriously at all here.
Winter Avenue’s sidewalks disappear a mere 50 metres south of Eglinton Avenue
Physical interventions, such as narrower lanes (which could make room for cycling infrastructure and/or wider sidewalks), bump-outs at crosswalks to improve pedestrian visibility and slow down right-turning vehicles, would be more effective. Police enforcement, or speed radar cameras, would be an additional deterrent against dangerous driving.
At least the city has taken notice of the unacceptable numbers of pedestrians and cyclists killed in Toronto, but simply putting up new speed limit and safety zone signs are not enough. Without road engineering works to slow traffic down, and without effective police enforcement against speeding and drivers’ failures to obey traffic signs and yield the right of way to pedestrians, we only get feel-good measures and ineffective signs. A real commitment to Vision Zero requires political will, which so far is lacking at City Hall. Instead, we get zero vision.