Toronto's road safety 'vigilantes' take grassroots approach to building safer streets
Some residents question efficacy of city, police efforts amid ongoing concerns
This story is part of CBC Toronto's new road safety series, Safer Streets. Whether you drive, bike, or walk, we want to hear your stories about sharing the road. What areas concern you? How do you want to make our streets safer? Send us an email: SaferStreetsToronto@cbc.ca
Morgan Ross considers himself a road safety "vigilante."
For roughly a decade, he's been living near Dundas Street West and Ossington Avenue — a kid-filled neighbourhood with multiple elementary schools and a daycare.
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So when he noticed drivers kept zooming through the area a couple years back, he flagged his concerns with the city. When that didn't lead to speedy action, he took matters into his own hands.
And that means plunking down ... pylons.
"Cars need to slow down, and sometimes it just takes a big orange pylon," the fedora-wearing west-ender says with an impish grin, before strategically lining up a few brightly painted cones along the roadside.
In a city where close calls between people driving, cycling and walking are a daily occurrence — and where 24 pedestrians have been killed this year alone, making up more than half of all the deadly crashes in 2018 — Ross is among the Toronto residents questioning the response from the city and police when it comes to road safety, and instead, taking a grassroots approach to making changes.
Road safety experts say this vigilantism is just one example of the rising level of frustration throughout the city.
"There's a heightened awareness like I haven't seen before on this road safety issue," said Gideon Forman, a transportation policy analyst with the David Suzuki Foundation.
'It's far from what Vision Zero has envisioned'
Ross was first inspired to take action after watching cars whiz through his neighbourhood on Halloween night several years ago.
"In order to change the laws or the bylaws, we have to go through our city councillors, and it's a big process," said Ross. "A few times, it's literally made more sense to just grab the pylons in the neighbourhood and place them in certain spots."
Just steps away at the intersection of Dundas Street West and Shaw Street — a spot known for being a cycling artery during rush hour — Daniel Giovannini is sharing a similar frustration when it comes to working with Toronto police.
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The west-end resident bikes through the intersection twice a day during his commute, and regularly catches drivers going straight through during rush hour — when they're supposed to be turning left or right — on his helmet camera.
More than 30 times, Giovannini has taken a grassroots approach to nabbing rule-breakers by filing reports through the force's online citizen reporting system.
He says nothing gets done.
Then, on March 15, he wound up getting hit by a car just a block south.
"A driver merged dangerously without signalling, collided with my bicycle while I was already taking the lane, and left the scene," he recalls. "I called 911, as cyclists are required to do, but was redirected to the non-emergency number."
He says that call only led to more frustration and inaction, with police recommending he report the crash through the force's online system — the same system he says doesn't lead to any change.
"With its solid traffic island, one-way lanes, painted share-laned markings, and contraflow lanes, Shaw Street should be a textbook example of a bike-friendly city street," Giovannini said.
"Unfortunately, with its consistent lack of enforcement and the terrible state of its paving, it's far from what Vision Zero has envisioned."
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Vision Zero, the city's five-year, $100 million initiative, has included speed-limit reductions in dozens of corridors, new signs and road markings near schools and seniors' zones, and added bike lanes — all part of a multi-national goal to achieve zero deaths or injuries involving road traffic.
But as deadly crashes keep happening, Toronto's road safety strategies have come under fire from critics like Giovannini who say not enough is being done — particularly on the enforcement front, he says.
Today, <a href="https://twitter.com/CBCToronto?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@CBCToronto</a> is kicking off a new series: <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/SaferStreetsToronto?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#SaferStreetsToronto</a><br><br>Whether you drive, bike, or walk, we want to hear your stories about sharing the road. What areas concern you? How do you want to make our streets safer?<br><br>Get in touch! DM or email: SaferStreetsToronto@cbc.ca <a href="https://t.co/GWGLAkUvOK">pic.twitter.com/GWGLAkUvOK</a>—@LaurenPelley
City, police stress need for evidence, education
So how do representatives for the city and police feel about concerns from local "vigilantes?"
When it comes to driver speed in the west-end neighbourhood he represents, Coun. Mike Layton says his team is aware of residents' concerns, but proper traffic studies take time — though he does feel the city should speed that process up.
Still, he says both community support and concrete evidence are crucial before the city moves forward with traffic-calming measures.
"We don't want to put in interventions in the road that will make it more dangerous, that will make people actually pick up speed as they approach an intersection because they're trying to gun through it to the next set of lights that they see," he says.
Police also say they face a tricky task.
Speaking to CBC Toronto near Dundas Street West and Shaw Street on a weekday morning during rush hour, traffic services Const. Clint Stibbe nabbed multiple rule-breaking drivers in the span of half an hour.
But he says with more than 5,600 kilometres of roadway and 2,300 intersections with signals throughout the city, police physically can't always camp out in specific locations. "We have to spread our assistance to everybody," he said.
Habitual driving behaviours and the domino effect that comes with rule-breaking on the road pose particular challenges for police, Stibbe adds. He says ongoing education for drivers is one key piece of the puzzle.
"The big statement we often hear is, 'Police need to do more.' Well, actually, the community needs to do more," Stibbe said. "All of the people I stopped: They're from this community."
But should community members be taking matters into their own hands?
Forman believes residents should keep working within the existing systems to make changes, like collaborating with city councillors to lower speed limits, for instance. Police also note that certain vigilante efforts, like putting objects on a roadway, aren't legal.
Ross just wants the powers at be to take more action, more quickly. Otherwise, he'll keep plopping down pylons.
"I think city planning really needs to talk to the neighbourhood about what works, and what doesn't work," he says. "And the residents need to know to speak up."