Toronto city hall still throwing up roadblocks to road safety

The issue of road safety has been keeping Toronto’s community councils busy. But is tangible progress happening?

Strict requirements, byzantine processes stand in way of speed limit reductions, traffic calming

An analysis of dozens of reports and recommendations around road safety shows the process for implementing real change on Toronto's streets still faces roadblocks. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

The issue of road safety has been keeping Toronto's community councils busy.

When the four councils — representing North York, Scarborough, Etobicoke York, and the old Toronto & East York — met earlier this month on September 16, they collectively considered 49 items relating to things like traffic lights, speed limit reductions and speed bumps. Road safety items represented a whopping 24 per cent of all their business.

Does that represent progress? Well, maybe. The level of activity does point to a lot of work being done on road safety, but a close analysis of the 49 reports and recommendations shows that the process for implementing real change on Toronto's streets is still beset by roadblocks.

Complex procedures and contradictory bureaucracy mean the pace of implementation is slow, even as deaths and injuries on city streets continue.

The slow pace of speed limit reductions

How slow? Some of the reports from transportation staff suggest it could be more than five years before the speed-limit reductions on local roads approved as part of the council-approved road safety plan are implemented.

In one report responding to a request to lower the speed limit from 50 km/h to 30 km/h on Erie Road in Etobicoke, the city's transportation services department recommended against the immediate reduction and instead pointed to a longer-term plan to reduce speed limits on all local roads.

More than 80 per cent of the pedestrians killed on Toronto's roads so far this year are older adults or seniors, data from Toronto police shows. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

The report called speed-limit reduction a "labour intensive process" and noted that the "actual installation of the signs and pavement markings on local roads will be a data driven process at a ward-by-ward basis taking place between 2021 and 2026."

In this case, Coun. Frances Nunziata wasn't content to wait that long and successfully moved to overrule the report recommendation and reduce the speed limit anyway.

This kind of intervention isn't rare. The road safety reports delivered to councillors frequently conflict with councillor  and neighbourhood requests — and sometimes with the overall goal of the Vision Zero effort to make streets safe.

Getting the green light for new traffic lights

One of the best examples comes via a report on the downtown intersection of Bay Street and St. Mary Street, where there are no traffic lights.

Despite neighbourhood demand and a safety record showing a whopping 15 collisions over the last three years — two involving a cyclist and one involving a pedestrian — the report recommended against traffic lights because their strict criteria determined there wasn't enough vehicle traffic to justify the installation.

The local councillor again stepped in, with Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam successfully moving to install the traffic light over the report recommendation.

The province is planning to run a five-year pilot project that allows electric scooters on Ontario roads. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Similar intervention is also frequently required with the city's truly byzantine process for securing traffic calming measures like speed bumps. Toronto's traffic calming guide lays out a process that starts with a survey, petition or public meeting and plods through 13 steps, including neighbourhood polling.

The process is often, well, bumpy, and the democratic standard required for the neighbourhood poll is higher than the standard applied to government office, with the poll considered invalid unless more than 50 per cent of those polled return their ballot. In areas deemed community-safety zones the threshold is lower, at 25 per cent.

In one recent instance, a report recommended against speed bumps on Strathnairn Avenue in York despite a very healthy 77 per cent approval rate in the local poll because only 36 per cent of ballots mailed out were returned.

Nunziata again overturned the recommendation.

A disconnect between policy and process

While these processes aren't completely blocking speed-limit reductions, signal installations and traffic calming measures, it's odd that these reports continue to recommend against traffic safety measures even as Mayor John Tory and council have repeatedly endorsed a Vision Zero plan that encourages them.

It's not a harmless disconnect. Each report takes time to produce, and communities are relying on their councillor to be attentive and catch the reports that contract their road safety goals.

An alternative approach would see the criteria and processes adjusted to lower the standards and requirements, and actively encourage road safety changes without requiring long reports or councillor intervention.

Embed the policy in the process. Doing so would be a big shift for Toronto, where the wheels of change have moved slowly even as cars continue to go really fast.


Matt Elliott

Municipal affairs analyst

Matt Elliott has been following, analyzing and delving deep into wonky policy stuff at Toronto city hall since 2010. You can follow Matt on Twitter at @GraphicMatt.


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