Toronto·Opinion

Safer streets should be an election issue — especially in Toronto's suburbs

Road safety is a city-wide problem, and solutions can't just be confined to the more urban parts of the city. But with a lack of infrastructure and a need for more political will, that fix isn't going to be easy to come by, Matt Elliott writes.

Is the political will there in the inner-suburbs to curb the number of pedestrian fatalities?

When politicians debate pedestrian safety, it's often focused on what's happening in the downtown core. But it's the inner-suburbs where most of the fatalities are happening. (Katherine Holland/CBC)

The six pedestrians killed in traffic collisions on Toronto's streets this summer have a couple of things in common.

First, their deaths were tragic and likely avoidable if better infrastructure or traffic enforcement had been in place.

Second, they were all killed on streets in the city's inner-suburbs.

That's not surprising.

Though a lot of the conversation around pedestrian safety in Toronto is focused on what's happening in the ultra-urban downtown core, the majority of pedestrian collisions causing death in recent years have taken place in the city's inner-suburbs.

Of the 23 pedestrian deaths recorded by Toronto police in 2018, 21 of them happened in areas outside of what people most think of as downtown. In 2017, the numbers were similar: 27 of 36 collisions resulting in pedestrian deaths happened outside the city's core.

This is important context as candidates for mayor and council talk about safer streets in advance of the October 22 municipal election. Road safety is a city-wide problem, and solutions can't just be confined to the more urban parts of the city.

But with a lack of infrastructure and a need for more political will, that fix isn't going to be easy to come by.

Suburban infrastructure actively hostile to pedestrians

In 2016, a city hall report found nearly a quarter of local streets in Toronto lack sidewalks, with the percentages of sidewalk-less streets areas much higher in the suburbs.

  • In Scarborough, 23 per cent of streets lack sidewalks 
  • In Etobicoke-York, it's 26 per cent
  • In North York, the number is a whopping 33 per cent

While downtown's infrastructure for pedestrians could use upgrades and enhancements to improve safety, these areas in the inner-suburbs often don't have basic infrastructure at all.

In addition, roads are wider, traffic moves faster and pedestrian crossings are spread out.

While the city has rolled out more signage, some streets will require total transformation to make things safer for pedestrians. (Yanjun Li/CBC)

Why does this matter? Consider this.

In January, 21-year-old Jessica Renee Salickram was killed while she was trying to cross Steeles Avenue East, in Scarborough, after getting off a bus. The bus stop was located on a street with no sidewalk and it was more than 200 metres away from the closest safe crossing.

Making areas like this safe for pedestrians isn't simply a matter of throwing up some signage. A total transformation to prioritize pedestrian safety is required.

And total transformations don't happen without local politicians pushing for them.

Needed in the suburbs: political will

Toronto unveiled its Vision Zero road safety plan to much fanfare in 2016. Since then, it has faced two significant challenges: a lack of money and a lack of political will.

The money has come. This past June, Toronto council voted to boost their spending commitment by another $22 million.

The political will hasn't.

In September 2016, councillors from Etobicoke-York rejected a push by Coun. Sarah Doucette (Parkdale-High Park) to lower the speed limits on local roads in her ward to 30 km/h.

Similarly, a push to add sidewalks to streets in North York's Lawrence Park fizzled out in 2017 after Don Valley West Coun. Jaye Robinson (who chairs the city's Vision Zero effort) sided with homeowners concerned that adding sidewalks would remove too many trees.

And this past March, a plan to narrow Yonge Street in North York to widen sidewalks and add bike lanes was deemed too disruptive to drivers by the city's public works committee and Mayor John Tory, despite a staff report indicating the plan with bike lanes was the safest option for pedestrians. (Council later opted to defer making a decision on the plan.)

Council candidates need to speak clearly on road safety

Jennifer Keesmaat, Toronto's former chief planner, has previously said the city is dealing with a 'crisis' when it comes to pedestrian fatalities. Now, she's making the issue a key pillar of her mayoral campaign. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

This week, mayoral candidate Jennifer Keesmaat unveiled her road safety plan, criticizing Tory's efforts on the file. Her announcement was timely, and this is a key issue for the mayoral race.

Tory's campaign has responded with its own promise, that the current mayor is committed to doing everything possible as quickly as possible to make the city's streets safer.

But it's local councillors — and not just the person elected mayor — who will ultimately decide how much progress Toronto makes over the next four years.

The pressure should be on candidates running in Scarborough, North York and Etobicoke.

This isn't simply about money or signage. It's about transformation to prioritize pedestrians and other active road users. The way is clear. The will comes next. 

About the Author

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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