What Do Safe Streets Look Like?
Forty-two. That is how many Torontonians died in the 2003 SARS outbreak, and it is also how many pedestrians and cyclists died on the streets of Toronto in 2019. If the City of Toronto treated pedestrian and cyclist safety as seriously as it is treating the current coronavirus scare perhaps that number would not have been so high. But, as the Toronto Star reported last December, Toronto police issued 140,000 fewer speeding tickets in 2018 than they had a decade earlier, and nearly fifty per cent fewer careless driving charges.
There is a clear causal relationship between the reduction in the number of tickets that are issued and the increase in collisions and fatalities on the road. So, it is little wonder that there has been an increase in preventable collisions and fatalities in the last ten years. Appallingly, a pedestrian or cyclist in Toronto is hit by a car every three and a half hours on average.
Imagine a scenario in which the Bloor subway line ended at the Don Valley. That would not be very convenient to the thousands of commuters in the city’s east end. But that is essentially the perilous reality cyclists in Toronto face every day.
There is a two-and-a-half kilometre stretch of protected bike lanes along Bloor Street West, which were installed in 2016. And those bike lanes now continue along Bloor Street East from Sherbourne to Broadview avenues. But without separated bike lanes along the Danforth, the three thousand cyclists who travel this stretch of road every day do not have a safe east-west cycling route.
Dr. Samantha Green, a physician at St. Michael’s Hospital and the co-founder of the Doctors for Safe Cycling advocacy group, has seen first-hand the toll that violence on Toronto’s roads can take. She recently treated a cyclist who was almost left paralyzed following an accident. The statistics speak for themselves, Green says, with an average of more than 75 cyclist fatalities every year in Ontario alone due to collisions with cars.
Green’s prescription for this is a simple one, but it is taking effect slowly. “The key to building a sustainable, modern city,” she says, is investing in “a robust network of separated bike lanes and other safety features,” like reduced speed limits for cars and midblock pedestrian crossings, to reduce the risk of injuries.
The goal of traffic safety initiatives should be to design streets that prioritize the most vulnerable road users—pedestrians and cyclists—instead of motorized vehicles.
The Danforth is an ideal location for bike lane infrastructure, according to Green, because of the street’s flat surface and lack of streetcar tracks. And owing to the street’s width, bike lanes would still leave plenty of room for cars and pedestrians. Parking would not be a concern, because less than twenty per cent of visitors travel to the Danforth by car and there are no fewer than eight Green P parking lots between Broadview and Pape avenues alone.
What is lacking, Green says, is the “political will” to move the needle of public opinion on the issue of street safety. “It’s like in the late 90s, when there was pushback about banning smoking inside restaurants,” Green says. “People eventually come around.”
People are already coming around to Green’s line of thinking. When Green was first practicing medicine her patients would say that she must have a death wish when she recommended cycling as an exercise option. With many Toronto residents now concerned about road safety, more than eighty per cent of respondents to a recent Ekos Research poll supported building protected bike lanes of some description.
This would not only be good for the health and safety of cyclists, but also for businesses. In her 2015 book The Urban Cycling Survival Guide, Forest Hill BIA President Yvonne Bambrick wrote about the nearly fifty per cent increase in sales along a stretch of New York City’s Ninth Avenue after separated bike lanes were installed there a few years ago. And in 2019 the Toronto Centre for Active Transportation, which looked at the economic impact of bike lanes on Bloor Street, concluded that consumer spending goes up when the road is more conducive to cyclists and pedestrians.
It can only be good news, then, that the City of Toronto is currently undertaking a planning study of the entirety of Danforth Avenue between Broadview and Victoria Park. The city’s study involves an examination of roadway widths and the feasibility of protected bike lanes, and an economic study to evaluate the issues faced by businesses on the Danforth. This will be the largest study of its kind the city has undertaken, according to Councillor Paula Fletcher, and it could not come fast for street safety advocates.
In Green’s words, “Part of building a modern city means designing streets that are safe for everyone.”