If there is such a thing as a war on the car in this city, a report going before the board of health on Monday could well be the new battle plan for the anti-automobile faction.
The report, authored by Toronto Public Health, outlines an extensive strategy to increase the cycling and walking in Toronto, a goal that its authors say can only be achieved by curbing the car-first thinking that informs the design of so much of our physical space.
But the benefits of giving more consideration to bikers and pedestrians far outweigh any resulting inconvenience to drivers, according to medical officer of health Dr. David McKeown.
"This report concludes that increased investment in the safety, attractiveness, and feasibility of walking and cycling will help to improve health," McKeown wrote in his summary of the report, citing decreased risk of fatal vehicle collisions, heart attack, strokes, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.
The report's recommendation to lower speed limits to 40 km/hr on non-residential streets and 30 km/hr on residential ones has gotten the most attention from the media so far, and perhaps with good reason. Statistics show that pedestrians have an 85 per cent chance of dying when hit by a car going 50 km/hr, but fatality rates drop to 5 per cent if the car is going 30 km/hr. Roughly 3,000 people are hit by cars every year in Toronto, resulting in about 30 deaths.
But the 96-page report is much more sweeping than that one recommendation, and the city it envisions is strikingly different than the one we live in now. Not only would speed limits be lower, but traffic would be calmed by ubiquitous physical treatments like curb extensions and narrower roads.
Wherever possible, cyclists would be separated from drivers by curbs or buffers. Traffic signals would give pedestrians and cyclists a three- to five-second head start over cars, and major intersections would feature bicycle boxes to prevent conflicts with motorists.
Interconnected networks of bike lanes would stretch into the suburbs, and every residential street would have a smooth, wheelchair-ready sidewalk. Workplaces and schools would have indoor bike parking and showers for commuting cyclists, and aggressive education campaigns would promote active transportation at a young age.
"It's a fundamental shift," Amanda O'Rourke, director of policy and planning at active transportation advocacy group 8-80 Cities, says of the report. "It is extremely important and a wonderful opportunity to make safer streets in Toronto."
In that area, Toronto has a lot of room to grow. The report found that while 55 per cent of trips are short enough to be covered by cycling or walking, the two combined have a mode share of only 8.2 per cent.
O'Rourke argues that not only would more active transportation make Toronto healthier, but more equitable. Because 30 per cent of people don't drive, and those who do have higher-incomes and tend to be between the ages of 18 and 65, our current car-first thinking excludes the poor, the young, and the elderly.
"It's really an issue of democracy on our streets," O'Rourke says. "Streets are the largest public space in our cities. They really need to be shared by everyone. There is a huge equity issue there."
While the report's recommendations have already been shot down by the mayor (he called the suggestion to lower speed limits "nuts" on Friday) and some of his allies as impractical, O'Rourke believes concerns that slower roads will hurt the economy are overblown.
"What we've actually found is that cities that make these investments provide a greater quality of life for their residents, and that's a great tool for economic competitiveness, especially in the globalized economy," she says, noting that gridlock can't be solved by enhancing the current supremacy of the car.
The report found that improving safety for cyclists and pedestrians would save over $62 million a year in collision costs, and current levels of active transportation generate up to $478 million in indirect economic benefits by preventing lost productivity in the workplace.
While the report's recommendations may not gain much traction at Rob Ford's City Hall, Councillor Joe Mihevc hopes that it will at least encourage people to stop thinking of road planning as simply a matter for the transportation department.
"It's not just a transportation issue," says Mihevc, who serves as vice-chair of the board of health. "It's a public health issue given the amount of people who get injured by vehicles that are traveling too fast."