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May 01, 2019

Understanding Vision Zero and the Transformation of Road Safety

Understanding Vision Zero and the Transformation of Road Safety
Cyclists on Adelaide St, Toronto. Image courtesy of Nicholas Jones, Cycle Toronto.

For our May blog post, OPPI spoke with Jared Kolb (JK), Executive Director of Cycle Toronto, Sibel Sarper (SS), Assistant Planner – Cycling Infrastructure and Programs, City of Toronto and Brad Bradford (BB), Toronto City Councillor for Ward 19 Beaches-East York and Candidate member of OPPI about Vision Zero and its importance to pedestrians, commuters and planning in Toronto.

Please note: the views expressed in this blog are solely the authors' and do not represent their respective employers.

OPPI: What is Vision Zero?

JK: Originally adopted in Sweden in the 1990s, Vision Zero turns the road safety paradigm on its head. A Vision Zero approach to road safety takes the risk out of the roadway. When collisions do inevitably occur, an intersection re-engineered with Vision Zero principles means everyone can get home safe. While our best selves are outstanding road users, we aren’t always our best selves; we make mistakes when we're tired, irritable and distracted. This means that education will only go so far to changing behaviour on our roads; the real key to change lies in designing infrastructure to eliminate deaths from our roadways.
SS: Vision Zero is asking us to recognize that there is a public interest in the sanctity of human lives; if we imagine cities where every human life is sacred, then we need to rethink our traffic system and the role of automobiles within this system. This is the moral imperative of Vision Zero; emphasizing that mobility and safety cannot be weighed against each other and increased mobility is afforded only when a road system is safe1.
 2019052.jpgPublic space is limited, and thus planners are sometimes challenged by incorporating Vision Zero principles into the “existing urban canvas.”
BB: At its core, Vision Zero is about fixing the problems that led to a record year of pedestrian cyclist deaths for Toronto in 2018. It's about getting from 44 deaths on our streets in one year to zero. The safety through design element is critical for us to think about, but that's the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface Vision Zero is about a much broader conversation forcing us to make decisions on who and what we prioritize in our limited public space, how we engage people to make changes that can feel uncomfortable, and how much we have to work within the confines of the existing urban canvass we have versus starting again.

OPPI: From a planning perspective, what considerations need to take place when implementing a program like Vision Zero?  

SS: As professional planners, we sign an oath to the public interest, but the difficulty in serving this interest is that the public is not one monolithic body with a singular interest. In terms of transportation, the public interest consists of people of all ages and abilities   who choose to use our transportation system in different ways, whether it is driving, taking transit, walking, cycling, or a variety of other modes. How we move is an important part of how we experience our cities.
BB: Planners have a big impact on people's lives but rarely work on matters of life and death. Vision Zero is an exception to that. If we're talking about land-use planning, our role is fundamentally inter-disciplinary. We have an opportunity to set priorities and balance competing interests. In the Vision Zero conversation, I think, we have a major role in elevating and prioritizing road safety. At the area plan scale, we might advocate for the safer complete streets vision which includes protected bike lanes, wider sidewalks, and reducing street crossing. But even on the individual development application, we have a role to make sure for the driveway access to maximize pedestrian safety, or to think through visibility and turning radii for the pick-up/drop-off space. To elevate those priorities, we have to be smart policy makers as well as policy interpreters. We can build capacity among residents, among applicants, and communities as a whole – explaining why the asks and the trade-offs we're asking them to make really matter.

OPPI: Does Vision Zero make streets safer and what is being done to make them safer?

JK: As practitioners and advocates, we know that getting people to ride bicycles more often is as much about perceived safety as actual safety. It’s important to not only understand declines in collisions, but also improvements in user experience. Bike lanes aren’t just for young, fit, wealthy folks riding downtown. They dramatically improve our streets by adding predictability, comfort, safety, and vibrancy.
2019053.jpg80% of traffic fatalities in Toronto occur in areas with high-speed arterial roads. Speed reduction is a critical component of Vision Zero.
Take the Bloor Street bike lanes in Toronto. The City of Toronto’s project team did an analysis of ‘near-miss’ collisions and found that one year after installation, the total number of collisions between all users had decreased by 44%. The collisions between people walking and people driving plummeted by 55%. Before the Bloor Street bike lanes were installed, 14% of respondents who drive reported feeling comfortable driving next to people biking on Bloor Street compared to 66% after installation. What’s more, 85% of respondents who bike surveyed feel safe or very safe riding a bicycle on Bloor Street, compared to 3% surveyed before installation. 86% of respondents who walk in the area felt their experience walking on Bloor Street with bike lanes installed was about the same or better than it was before installation.
SS: My role at the City of Toronto involves using exploratory, data-driven approaches to determine the causes of fatalities in our transportation system and identify key initiatives to eliminate them that are both reactive (i.e. mitigating unsafe locations in the road network) and those that are proactive in nature (i.e. implementing interventions in areas that share similar characteristics of high collision locations) and to inform policies to prevent future collisions.
As the central tenet of Vision Zero, our road system needs to operate at safe speeds. So, if we want our streets to be safer, we need to design them to be slower; reconsidering current rights-of-way and creating more space for bike lanes and pedestrian space.

BB: Vision Zero is absolutely making streets safer – impact isn't always easy to measure. While the most critical metric will always be getting the number of road deaths down to zero, and reducing injury, progress takes time. We also have to measure awareness and uptake in the movement, the number of projects that are embodying vision zero principles, and the number of interventions made. Like any natural experiment, the effects of the interventions might not be felt for some time.
My role as a City Councillor is to advocate for change at every level. Being in municipal politics allows me to do this in a particularly unique way – I get to look at the minutiae of whether speed bumps or stop signs go in on a local street, to having big conversation about how we fund vision zero initiatives like “know your speed” signage, or prioritize our Transportation Services budget like we did in 2019 to invest almost $60 million in our road safety plan.

OPPI: How important is design in Vision Zero?
SS: On streets where vehicles travel beyond the speeds that a human can withstand, especially on arterials, it is necessary for temporal and physical separation of vehicles and vulnerable road users.
2019054.jpgAn example of a "sharrow" on a Toronto street. Image courtesy of Jared Kolb, Cycle Toronto.
This can be accomplished by adding protected crossings, protected intersections, dedicated and separated cycling infrastructure; all of which help with narrowing the geometry of roadways and effectively slowing vehicles down, making it safer for all users of the road. Vision Zero emphasizes safe road design as the essential element of safe streets, working in combination with improved education, enforcement and leveraging technology to holistically improve safety. The combination of all these elements are proving effective at dramatically improving safety in cities across the globe.
JK: Don’t compromise on design. It’s all well and good to promote cycling but we’ve got to be careful to build bike lanes that are appropriate for all ages and abilities. We’ve got to guard against compromising for unsafe infrastructure. Toronto uses the sharrow symbol to denote lanes to be shared by people driving cars and people riding bicycles where there isn’t enough space for bike lanes. Unfortunately, they’re just a symbol and do nothing to protect people biking. On a bicycle, most people don’t feel safe taking the lane and aggressive driving only exacerbates that experience.
Intersection design is another crucial piece of the Vision Zero puzzle. Two people were killed while cycling in 2018 at the intersection of two bike lanes. Unfortunately, protected bike lanes often disappear at the intersection. International best practices tell us that protected signal phases, recessed stop lines and protective islands all help to improve intersection safety. For example, The City of Guelph has built its first protected intersection. We need to follow their lead and dramatically scale them up across the Province.
BB: Absolutely critical. The evidence is there. Planners might sometimes be criticized because there isn't a clear science to our practice but I think Vision Zero is a clear exception. We know the interventions that make a difference. We've talked about some of these already. One thing we could do better is really communicating the rationale to people – helping them understand why that mid-block crossing is so critical, explaining why the bump-out on that corner will actually save lives. Whenever a change happens, there will always be some confusion, even frustration. I think it's our job as advocates to walk people through that, to bring them along. At least in my own Beaches-East York community, my neighbours are open to new ideas and making change and it's just a matter of working together so we all understand the end goal we're working towards.

OPPI: What are the benefits of bike lanes within the Vision Zero idea?
J2019055.jpgK: Bike lanes bust congestion. Bike lanes when used appropriately not only become valuable infrastructure but help in easing congestion. And, in a place like downtown Toronto, this is critical as congestion will only get worse as the years go on. Cycling is ideal for trips less than six kilometres. The majority of trips in urban environments fit this category. When cycling networks are thoughtfully designed, they can be an incredible incentive to switch modes. Look to Richmond and Adelaide Streets in Toronto. According to City of Toronto staff, "cyclists make up approximately one third of all vehicles entering the Downtown Core in the morning along Adelaide (32%) and leaving the Downtown Core in the afternoon along Richmond (30%). West of University Avenue, the cycle tracks on Richmond Adelaide in the peak period direction, carry a higher volume of vehicles per lane than the motor vehicle lanes.” (City of Toronto 2019, pg 8)
BB: I think everyone agrees that everyone is and feels safer with bike lanes. Cyclists feel safer with separation and motorists feel more predictability and certainty around how the road is being used. By reducing congestion and making the shared nature of the right-of-way very apparent, everyone is slowing down and everyone is being more aware of each other.
OPPI: Any final comments about Vision Zero?2019056.jpg
SS: Transportation system design is a collective, interdisciplinary effort that touches all aspects of city building. As planners, it is our responsibility to work from a lens of Vision Zero, collaboratively weaving it into our day-to-day work processes.
JK: Vision Zero is an opportunity to break down barriers and build inter-divisional momentum to promote road safety. And, a real Vision Zero program must be built on high quality infrastructure for our most vulnerable road users.
BB: Vision Zero is one of those rare policy pieces that everyone can get behind. Road safety is a concern that everyone shares. Of course, there will be multiple interests for any public space. By starting with a principle- and goal-based commitment like Vision Zero, all stakeholders have something to work toward.
OPPI: Thank you.

1 Tingvall C, Haworth N. Vision Zero - An ethical approach to safety and mobility. 6th ITE International Conference Road Safety & Traffic Enforcement: Beyond 2000; Melbourne. 1999

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Brad Bradford, Jared Kolb, Sibel Sarper

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