25 deaths on Toronto roads this year show Vision Zero still has long way to go, advocates say
Physical road changes biggest piece of puzzle, says Vision Zero acting manager Mateen Mahboubi
Toronto's Vision Zero strategy is moving in the right direction, say advocates and experts, but it has yet to meet its goal of ending traffic fatalities and serious injuries on city roads.
So far this year, 25 people have died on Toronto's roadways, the latest data from the city shows. That number includes 15 pedestrians, six motorists, three motorcyclists and one cyclist.
In all of 2022, 50 people died in road incidents, approximately 30 killed by the middle of the year.
"The term for the project is Vision Zero. And really, the goal is to get to zero fatalities and much lower serious injuries," said Matti Siemiatycki, the director of the Infrastructure Institute at the University of Toronto.
"We're not there yet."
The City of Toronto introduced its Vision Zero strategy in 2016 with the goal of reducing traffic-related deaths and serious injuries to zero after 78 people died in traffic incidents the previous year.
It's a strategy that exists in several municipalities around the world, including in the U.S. and Europe. In Toronto, it has prompted the redesign and rebuilding of intersections, led to red-light camera installations to catch speeding drivers, included advance signals for pedestrians and improved bike lanes.
Enforcing traffic laws and educating road users play an important role too, says the city's Vision Zero acting manager Mateen Mahboubi. But changing roads, however difficult, is the piece of the puzzle that will have the biggest impact, he says.
"It's ultimately the road design that's going to self-enforce the kind of speed limit needed," he said.
The challenge: there's already a built environment that cannot all be torn up at once. Mahboubi says staff have been piggybacking off existing repair work to add more safety features to increase the pace of Vision Zero projects. But some advocates say the city needs to move faster to make changes.
Missing investment and political will: advocate
Jess Spieker is one of them.
Spieker says she knows firsthand the costs of unsafe roads. Eight years on, she says she has not fully recovered from a 2015 collision while riding her bike on Bathurst Street. Spieker says she still lives with chronic pain and a brain injury from the crash.
She says drivers cannot be relied on to do the right thing, saying road infrastructure changes have been proven to be most effective. As of July 30, Toronto police issued 45,053 speeding tickets, 33,555 aggressive driving tickets and 6,681 distracted driving tickets in the city.
"There are any number of Vision Zero interventions that could have prevented my near-death experience and the way that my life has been blown up," she said.
"Those high-speed, straight, wide roads are where the large majority of pedestrian deaths are inflicted. Those urgently demand design change, and they've never gotten it," she said.
Spieker believes that lack of change is why the number of deaths hasn't dropped more drastically since Vision Zero was implemented.
"What's been missing is the investment and the political will."
Narrowing roads a tough sell in car-dependent areas
Inner suburban areas built around the car, like much of Etobicoke, Scarborough and North York, where many people are auto-dependent still pose a political challenge, says Siemiatycki.
Successful Vision Zero initiatives there might mean adding bicycle lanes or wider sidewalks, narrowing lanes of traffic to reduce speeds or adding crosswalks or stop lights, he says.
Mahboubi says the appetite for bike lanes is shifting in a positive direction. But dropping a lane on an arterial road to slow traffic is something that has less buy-in right now, even though staff know it could make some roads safer.
"There's still a bit of ways to go for getting that political will to make significant changes," he said.
Scott Butler, the executive director of Good Roads, a road advocacy and research group, says even places with effective Vision Zero projects, like the Netherlands, did not always have public buy-in to prioritize vulnerable road users.
"Those places were not that long ago in a position very similar to Toronto," he said. "They got there, but it was not an easy process."
"As frustrating as it may be to advocates, it does require a bit of patience," Butler said.
But after election of a new mayor who is herself a cyclist and campaigned on improving Toronto's roadways, some say change might come sooner now.
"I think we have a moment where we can be ambitious, and we can really try to take the next leap, to get to zero," said Siemiatycki.
"We have the resources in the city. And hopefully now we have the political will."