Can changing street design save lives?

By John Lorinc - Published on May 10, 2016
person riding a bike, with pedestrians and cars in the background
Ontario municipalities are stepping up efforts to confront unsafe driving and improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.

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If you happen to be a long-suffering pedestrian and cyclist safety advocate, the past year or so has been a period when the usual Mad Max approach to traffic politics appears to have calmed sufficiently to create space for a new type of conversation about confronting needless injuries and fatalities on the streets.              

For example, both Edmonton and Calgary city councils have recently adopted road safety strategies, with the former signing on to the Vision Zero philosophy gaining momentum across North America and Europe. (The phrase originated in Sweden in the late 1990s.)            

In January 2014, New York approved its own Vision Zero plan – a package of provisions such as speed limit reductions and red light cameras  meant to respond to the tragic deaths of young children felled by reckless drivers. The strategy builds on the crusading infrastructure work done by former Gotham transportation commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who substantially grew the network of protected bike lanes and created dozens of new pedestrian plazas as a means of calming and reducing car traffic. Fatalities in New York have plunged the past few years.             

Municipalities across southern Ontario seem to be stepping up their efforts to confront unsafe driving and improve conditions for pedestrians and cyclists. For example, Kitchener two years ago introduced “bike boxes” at some intersections, allowing cyclists more visibility and a head-start crossing at traffic lights. The City of Hamilton, meanwhile, will double its red-light camera program, which started in 2000, over the next five years, Hamilton News reports. The provincial government has also been providing grants to municipalities to expand cycling infrastructure.

Even car-loving Toronto has made substantial strides of late with its bike network, creating the city’s first semi-protected lanes , and then approving last week a pilot for Bloor Street. Next month, moreover, Toronto’s top transportation manager, Stephen Buckley, will give council its first glimpse of a comprehensive safety plan, which, in all likelihood, will also cast the city’s lot in with the growing number of Vision Zero-professing jurisdictions.               

NYC’s goal, for instance, is to halve traffic fatalities by 2025. When I asked Buckley about the utility of a target as a planning tool, he replied, “It is useful over the long term,” by which he means a decade.              

How ambitious Toronto’s actual reduction benchmark is – 40 per cent? 50 per cent? – remains to be seen, and what’s clear is that local politicians in cities with large suburban areas tend not to be enthusiastic about speed limit reductions. Indeed, Calgary council last week approved a 50-point safety plan known as Step Forward, but wavered on a staff recommendation to study reducing speed limits from 50 kilometres per hour to 40 km/h or even 30 km/h. 

Data from Canada, the U.S., and Europe makes clear that the risk of dying in a car accident for drivers and passengers has dropped due to engineered safety improvements. However, the proportion of pedestrian and cyclist traffic fatalities has risen. In Canada, the share of pedestrian traffic fatalities has gone from 14.3 per cent in 2009 to 15.6 per cent by 2013. The statistics tell a similar story for cyclists.               

There are no cure-alls to traffic fatalities, although there’s a mountain of evidence on where and why safety risks tend to lurk.             

Much research confirms that streets with faster speeds, wider lanes, and less designated space for pedestrians tend to be more dangerous. Mid-block crossings turn up frequently in studies on injuries, as well inadequately signed intersections.

Also, as Buckley confirms, demographics plays an extremely important role in the types of pedestrian safety improvements cities make: 60 to 80 per cent of traffic deaths are people over 55. One of the likely recommendations he’ll make will involve re-jigging traffic signals to allow pedestrians a bit more time to cross, especially in areas known to have larger concentrations of older residents.

New York, under Sadik-Khan, re-constructed numerous intersections, retrofitting them with bump outs that bring the curbs on either side of a crossing closer together.              

While this kind of sidewalk expansion can be very effective at traffic calming, Buckley points out that constructing bump outs is costly – up to $100,000 per intersection – because they require the city to move storm water drains, which are often found near corners.              

Buckley says that his team has taken a slightly different approach to corners. When he arrived from his last post at the City of Philadelphia, Buckley noticed that most Toronto corners had an “outrageously high” curve radius, meaning that it was much easier for cars to make right turns – an increasingly fraught activity, given the growing ranks of both cyclists and pedestrians – at higher speeds. He pushed his officials to implement a narrower curve radius for street corners, and then persuaded a national traffic engineering organization to adopt those new measures as the industry standard. Now whenever Toronto re-builds streets and intersections, the new corner curves will be sharper, forcing drivers to slow down.              

Buckley brought another insight from his days in the city William Penn built. Much of Philadelphia is built on a tight rectilinear grid that was laid out by Penn over 300 years ago. Philly’s narrow streets tend to have wide sidewalks and lanes that are just 2.7 to 3 metres wide, almost 20 per cent narrower than Toronto’s standard of 3.3 to 3.6 metres. As with corner curve radii, he told his traffic engineers to dial back lane width standards to Philly levels, and then persuaded the national standards group to adopt those benchmarks.

With that change, the new-found road space can be used for adding dedicated bus or bike lanes, or LRT rights-of-way, without altering road capacity. It makes the available space more efficient, and safer. After all, as Sadik-Khan shows in her new book Street Fight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution, traffic safety researchers have found that when drivers navigate narrower lanes, they tend to go more slowly and cautiously.              

While many cities are way ahead of Toronto when it comes to making the kind of safety improvements that force drivers to be more mindful of other users, Buckley cautions that changes will take time. The city has 25,000 intersections, and the transportation department only reconstructs about 0.5 per cent of Toronto roads in a typical year. (Obviously, only intersections on major roads will be modified).              

Cities across the GTA face the same pressures around traffic and safety. So a question for the area’s politicians is whether this kind of incremental change will deliver meaningful and sustainable improvements to what has been a worsening road safety record. After all, 10 years can go by in the wink of an eye.           

But solutions may come from beyond government, as well. Advances in engineered vehicle safety systems are beginning to consider the well-being of those outside the car as well as those on the inside. Carmakers like Volvo and Ford are both developing pedestrian sensing equipment, and such technology will obviously be a must-have for the self-driving cars that some see as the future of urban transportation.             

Given the steadily growing ranks of city-dwellers opting to walk, cycle or rely on other modes besides privately owned cars, it seems that decision-makers are realizing they must see more clearly when it comes to ensuring pedestrian safety.

Urban affairs journalist John Lorinc is a senior editor at Spacing Magazine.

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