City's $118k Vision Zero competition slammed by road safety advocates, who say 'proven solutions' exist

Advocates are questioning why the city is spending nearly $118,000 on its new eight-week Vision Zero Challenge when research and solutions to traffic-related deaths already exist.

New challenge follows 16 pedestrian deaths on Toronto roads so far this year

Toronto resident Colin Powell is among those questioning why the city is spending nearly $118,000 on its new eight-week Vision Zero challenge when solutions to traffic-related deaths already exist. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

Colin Powell walks, bikes, drives, and takes public transit to get around Toronto.

In other words, the environmentally-conscious consultant understands what it feels like to use Toronto's roads in a myriad of ways — making him the kind of well-versed Torontonian the city is hoping contributes to its newly-launched Vision Zero Challenge to boost road safety.

So what was Powell's reaction to the competition?

"Utter frustration," he said.

The city is spending nearly $118,000 on the eight-week challenge, CBC Toronto has learned.

A collaboration with the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship at Ryerson University, the competition is meant to encourage regular citizens, academics, and designers to develop innovative, data-driven solutions to the deaths and injuries regularly occurring on the city's streets. 

But both Toronto residents and outside road safety experts are questioning the city's investment in the project when ample evidence already exists about successful Vision Zero strategies being implemented in cities around the world, from Stockholm to New York.

"There are clear ways to get to Vision Zero. Separated bike lanes, reducing the speed of cars on our roads … I think there are far better things we could be doing with our time and money," Powell said.

The city's contribution to the Vision Zero Challenge is equal to the cost of building nearly 40 new speed bumps or outfitting at least four school zones with safety signs and road paint, city numbers show.

It's just one piece of Toronto's five-year, $87-million Vision Zero initiative, which 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.

So far, however, the project has yet to make a big difference when it comes to the number of pedestrian deaths in Toronto. 

The city is spending nearly $118,000 on the eight-week Vision Zero Challenge, CBC Toronto has learned. (John Rieti/CBC)

Competition looks like 'delay tactic,' says road safety expert

Sixteen pedestrians have died so far this year, putting the city on track to hit 38 deaths in 2018 — only a slight drop from the 42 deaths in 2017 and 43 the year before.

The new competition "looks like a delay tactic," and an effort to shift responsibility for road safety from city officials and employees to the public, said Graham Larkin, executive director for national advocacy group Vision Zero Canada. "This hackathon," he said, "Is this really something we should be spending money on?"

When asked if the Vision Zero Challenge is money well spent, Coun. Jaye Robinson, chair of the city's public works and infrastructure committee, stressed that the competition is geared towards finding solutions to a "pressing issue" in the city.

"Anything that helps us save one life in this city is certainly worth it," she said.

Participants, either in teams or independently, are being asked to answer the question: "How might we use data, design and technology to make all Toronto road users, especially seniors, newcomers and school children, safer immediately, and enable predictive and high priority interventions in the future?"

But critics say those data-driven solutions already exist around the world.

"The safety of vulnerable road users is not going to be improved by a hack-a-thon or a logo contest," tweeted Toronto resident Jesse Buchanan. "This is such a Toronto solution to the problem: experts say safety starts with safer road design. City says 'let's ignore the experts and ask the public!'"

Others stressed the depth of data available through Toronto police statistics, literature reviews, and as Vancouver-based designer Martyn Schmoll put it in a tweet, the "two decades of proven solutions."

Reducing speed limits, for instance, is often cited as the key factor is preventing pedestrian deaths. Data from the World Resources Institute shows the risk of death for a pedestrian being hit by a car travelling 50 kilometres an hour is a whopping 85 per cent. But when the car is driving 30 kilometres an hour, that risk drops to 10 per cent.

Some Toronto residents and Vision Zero supporters are questioning the necessity of the city's new Vision Zero Challenge, saying data already exists showing successful strategies to reduce deaths on city streets - lower driving speeds and separated bike lanes. (Charlie Brockman/CBC News)

"Speed is huge. That will have more impact than any other thing that you do," echoed road safety expert Jonathan Adkins, Washington-based executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Robinson said Toronto does learn from, and implement, international best practices.

There has been a decrease in overall traffic-related deaths since Vision Zero was approved by council in 2016, she noted, with city data showing a drop from 77 deaths that year to 63 deaths in 2017 — an 18 per cent decrease.

New York had 32 per cent drop in pedestrian deaths in 2017

Even so, Larkin said Toronto needs to take cues from other cities that are being more aggressive and varied with their Vision Zero policies.

Major cities including London, Paris, Berlin, and Tokyo all have speed limits of 40 kilometres an hour or lower, and are all recognized as among the safest cities in the world when it comes to traffic-related deaths (Toronto's Vision Zero plan includes speed limits around that level, but only in certain areas).

New York was also a major success story last year for its 32 per cent drop in pedestrian deaths, the steepest-ever one-year percentage decline in the city's recorded history. Since 2013, pedestrian deaths have plummeted in the city by nearly half.

Reduced speed limits, along with hundreds of safety improvement projects in recent years — including the installation of more than 2,300 advance green lights for pedestrians and a rapidly-expanding network of bike lanes — are cited as the reasons for that success.

Larkin believes New York is a comparable situation, meaning Toronto has the potential to see that kind of change.

New York is being hailed as a success story for its 32 per cent drop in pedestrian deaths in 2017. (The Associated Press)

Earlier this week, Mayor John Tory said the city always has to "do better" on this front. 

When asked about Toronto's new competition, Tory said anything the city can do to raise awareness and engage the public is a good thing. "If this was something that was costing scads of money at the expense of making some of the physical changes we have to make in the city, I might be more skeptical," he added.

The city also confirmed a portion of the allotted funds will go toward actually developing and implementing the winning ideas.

But with eight weeks to go in the Vision Zero Challenge, Powell wishes the city's sole focus was on taking concrete steps to reduce traffic-related deaths — strategies like reducing speed limits and creating separated bike lanes in more neighbourhoods — instead of hosting a competition.

"There are simple things we could be doing that we're just not doing," he said. "And I don't know why."

About the Author

Lauren Pelley

City Hall reporter

Lauren Pelley is a CBC reporter in Toronto covering city hall and municipal affairs. Contact her at: lauren.pelley@cbc.ca