There have been few spaces considered too important or too beautiful to sacrifice for the automobile in Toronto.
As the number of cars surged in the 1950s, sidewalk space was as likely to be seen as an opportunity to widen roads as a refuge for pedestrians.
“There are millions of dollars invested in useless concrete in this city in sidewalks that are hardly used at all,” Fred Gardiner, chair of Metropolitan Toronto council from 1953 to 1961, said in a speech.
Ravines were likewise seen as a wonderful resource to expand the road system. The Don Valley Parkway was proposed under Gardiner in 1954 and completed in 1961, despite concerns a six-lane highway would spoil the valley. Gardiner claimed the roadway beautified the valley.
Then, as now, the road casualty toll was disturbing. What’s new is the public’s rejection of road deaths and serious injuries as normal.
But Toronto’s Vision Zero road safety plan, released in 2016 to stop the carnage, is failing. There are many reasons why, starting with lacklustre leadership at city hall.
A deeper problem, however, is the continuing unwillingness (except on paper) of decision-makers to put pedestrian and cyclist safety above motorists’ historic entitlement to speed and space.
This huge bias in favour of motorists means that we need more than what Mayor John Tory describes as “a balance of all interests.”
When Tory talks about this balancing of interests – while fighting to maintain wide roads and rebuild highways – he ignores the reality of a balance that is monstrously out of whack.
Councillor Jaye Robinson, chair of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee (PWIC), which oversees our roads, is the other municipal leader with an important role in implementing the road safety plan.
But while Tory has at least been willing to stand in front of the cameras to talk about our dismal safety record, Robinson conveniently disappears or remains silent when her leadership is needed most.
The proposed redesign of Yonge in North York this spring, for example, was a key opportunity to implement the hallmarks of good road safety planning, including wider sidewalks, more pedestrian crossings, bike lanes and a narrower roadway.
Instead, at PWIC, the first stage in the approval process, Robinson was absent for the crucial vote. Other PWIC members then voted against the staff recommendation to adopt the proposal – a predictable outcome given Tory’s stacking of the committee with council’s motoring champions Giorgio Mammoliti and Stephen Holyday.
The project nonetheless moved to city council, where Robinson again remained virtually silent except to scold staff for failing to give her a timely cost breakdown of the project. A decision about Yonge was ultimately deferred until after the municipal election.
Opportunities to re-design roads come along rarely, but there are also short-term ways to improve road safety, particularly by reducing speed limits and using proven speed camera technology to enforce them.
The obstacle to speed cameras is that the city needs provincial authority.
But absent a forceful push from the mayor and Robinson, it’s no surprise that the province has dragged its feet. The result is that regulations for the use of speed cameras, including around schools, are not yet in place.
Even with the recently announced boost to Vision Zero spending following the grim casualty toll of the year’s first six months, Toronto’s five-year, $109 million budget still falls significantly short on a per capita basis compared to other cities making progress in reducing casualty tolls. New York, for example, is investing $1.6 billion over five years on road safety improvements.
Tory’s willingness to spend up to $20 million more to maintain six lanes on Yonge and moving bike lanes to neighbouring Beecroft puts the city’s overall safety spending into perspective.
Crucial next steps
In the short term, Tory has a number of good options to improve the safety prospects of people on foot or bike.
First, he can re-constitute PWIC and appoint a chair who will champion road safety.
Second, he can reverse his opposition to the Yonge redesign.
Third, he can push for quick and expanded implementation of speed cameras – or in the absence of cameras, stepped-up enforcement by police.
Over the longer term, he must find funding for Vision Zero consistent with the scale of the safety problem.
Most importantly, Mayor Tory must show that in choices between the safety of pedestrians or cyclists and the desire of motorists for speed and space, he chooses safety.
Albert Koehl is an environmental lawyer and founder of Bells on Bloor.