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Motorist Convenience Trumps Safety 43

“Driving the Volvo” – Photo by Thomas Anderson

Toronto’s chief medical officer made headlines in the Toronto media for recommending that the city reduce its speed limits to 30km/h on residential streets, and 40km/h on other city streets to “support the increased use and safety of walking and cycling”.

The Doctor’s recommendations were mocked by the media, and seemingly dismissed by the general public.

Dr. David McKeown, the chief medical officer who made the recommendations also suggested that the city adopt “leading pedestrian signal intervals” and markings for cyclists (including bicycle boxes).

The recommendations are a result of a comprehensive study that Toronto Public Health undertook which examined the health benefits and risks of walking and cycling in the city.

From a staff report released by Dr. McKeown’s office on April 16th:

This study provides clear evidence that physical activity from active transportation generates important health benefits such as reduced mortality from chronic diseases, and reduced risk of heart attacks, strokes, obesity, diabetes and several types of cancer, particularly colon and breast cancer. In Toronto, 2006 levels of walking and cycling to work were estimated to prevent about 120 deaths each year.

Savings in direct health care costs arising from current levels of Toronto residents staying active by walking or cycling and averting chronic illness are estimated to result in reduced health care spending of $110 to $160 million. In Toronto, costs associated with pedestrian vehicle collisions cost over $53 million and cyclist-vehicle collisions are over $9 million. By improving safety for pedestrian and cyclists in Toronto the direct costs associated with vehicle collisions with pedestrians and cyclists could be reduced by over $62 million.

In terms of indirect costs, if estimates of lost productivity or the economic value of a life are included, the total economic benefits of active transportation in Toronto range from $130 million to $478 million.

Despite the obvious benefits of protecting vulnerable human beings, the recommendations don’t seem to be widely accepted by the general public in Toronto.

A poll on the left-leaning Toronto Star website shows that 68% of readers would not be willing to reduce speed limits to 30 km/h on residential streets and 40km/h on other city streets.

An article in the right-leaning Toronto Sun newspaper warned that Toronto would become “Canada’s worst speed trap” if speed limits in this city were reduced (because drivers would of course disobey the new speed limit just as they do the current speed limits).

This indicates a larger problem in our car culture society. Drivers feel that they should be allowed to get to their destination as quickly as physically possible, without any concern for the life of others and without concern for the law or the posted speed limits.

In the Chinese city I have been living in for the past few months, I have yet to see a police officer enforcing a single traffic law. Yet everybody here drives drastically slower than in North America or Europe – despite a higher level of enforcement in those continents.

This shows that enforcement is only a small part of the solution (and not always an effective solution). There is a cultural issue at hand here where drivers in Toronto feel entitled put other people at risk in order to get to their destination as quickly as possible.

This sense of entitlement stems from the precedent that has been set historically – the “freedom” that driving originally provided. But as cities in Canada deal with population growth, the car commuting dynamics are changing and people can’t get to their destinations as quickly as before.

It is also perpetuated by the media. The Toronto Sun column cited above reeks of this sense of entitlement. From the article:

“It doesn’t, however, seem to make sense to take it all out on the car commuters since they are certainly paying their fair share in terms of taxes, licensing, fuel costs and fines for infractions.

The problem for the “War on the Car” people is the statistics don’t back up their claims that the car is the major problem here.”

If the Toronto Sun columnist had actually read the report, he would have read that:

“Motor vehicle collisions are a leading cause of death for young people, accounting for 70% of all accidental deaths in the 15 to 24 age group. In Toronto, motor vehicle collisions resulted in over 18,000 injuries and over 40 fatalities in 2010.

Or the writer would have educated himself on the benefits of reduced speed in collisions:

“Pedestrians have an estimated 85% chance of dying when hit by a car travelling at 50 km/hr but fatality rates decrease to less than 5% when the car travels at 30 km/hr (Figure 2).”

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The columnist could have also looked at examples in other cities outside of the automobile bubble that he seems to live inside:

“A review of 19 traffic-calming initiatives in four European countries found that injuries caused by collisions for all road users fell by 41-83%, while fatalities dropped by 14-85%. After 30 km/h zones were introduced in London, these zones experienced a 42% reduction in fatalities. In 1988 the Town of Baden, Austria restricted speeds to 30 km/hr for about 75 percent of its road network. This and other measures reduced the rate of casualties by 60 percent. New York City is now piloting reduced neighbourhood speed zones, with speed limits of about 30 km/hr.”

Or perhaps the columnist should get out of his car and take a ferry over to Toronto Island – a place where there is no motor vehicle pollution, no traffic signals, no speed limits, and most notably: no road deaths.

If he still doesn’t think cars and dangerous driving speeds are a problem in our city, then perhaps he should personally visit the families of all of the 40 pedestrians who were killed by cars in Toronto in 2010 to ask them if they think that reducing the speed limits would be a good idea.

James D. Schwartz is a Transportation Pragmatist and the Editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com or follow him on Twitter.

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  • Rider

    The columnist is right. The car is not the main problem here. The speeding car is.

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      … the speeding car, the distracted driver, the polluting car, the traffic congestion caused by car overuse, etc, etc.

  • Rider

    The columnist is right. The car is not the main problem here. The speeding car is.

  • http://www.fullfat.ca Octavian

    If that happened in KW, my car commute to work would take just about as long as commuting by bike. I don’t see how that would help anyone on my commute route as I see less than 5 pedestrians and 1 or 2 bikes along the way.
    I can see how it would work in TO though. It might be nice to have a pilot for a section of downtown.

    • Agustin

      It would encourage more people to bike because if the cars are going more slowly, it’s safer to cycle among them.

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      I agree that the solution recommended in this article is not a one-size-fits all solution for all cities in Ontario. But I think 30km/h on residential streets in Toronto is very reasonable.

      • http://www.fullfat.ca Octavian

        I think the low speed limit would work really well in core areas in any sized city/town.

    • Reaperexpress

      Really? The only time I see fewer than two two cyclists on my (bicycle) commute in Waterloo is in during snow storms

      • http://www.fullfat.ca Octavian

        I live in South East Kitchener. I commute to work close to UW, in the tech park. I don’t see any cyclists until I get closer to the university and sometimes, depending on my route, I barely see any. I can assure you, there are no cyclists on the Lackner/Shirley/Riverside/Bridgeport stretch. Maybe that will change as we approach summer.

        • James

          I wonder why.

  • http://www.fullfat.ca/ Octavian

    If that happened in KW, my car commute to work would take just about as long as commuting by bike. I don’t see how that would help anyone on my commute route as I see less than 5 pedestrians and 1 or 2 bikes along the way.

  • Easy

    When I was walking around the Toronto Islands I was surprised that a city vehicle drove past us once every 10 minutes or so, and not particularly slowly. Even on the Islands there’s room for improvement.

  • Easy

    When I was walking around the Toronto Islands I was surprised that a city vehicle drove past us once every 10 minutes or so, and not particularly slowly. Even on the Islands there’s room for improvement.

  • Agustin

    It would encourage more people to bike because if the cars are going more slowly, it’s safer to cycle among them.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    … the speeding car, the distracted driver, the polluting car, the traffic congestion caused by car overuse, etc, etc.

  • Agustin

    You can add Vancouver to your list of cities where reduced speed limits are being used to encourage cycling. The speed limit on designated on-street bike routes (where there is no physical separation from cars) is now 30 km/h.

    As well, in the last couple of months a stretch of Hastings Street (a major car route into downtown) had its speed limit reduced to 30 km/h in order to reduce pedestrian fatalities.

    Vancouver has yet to fall into the ocean.

  • Agustin

    You can add Vancouver to your list of cities where reduced speed limits are being used to encourage cycling. The speed limit on designated on-street bike routes (where there is no physical separation from cars) is now 30 km/h.

    As well, in the last couple of months a stretch of Hastings Street (a major car route into downtown) had its speed limit reduced to 30 km/h in order to reduce pedestrian fatalities.

    Vancouver has yet to fall into the ocean.

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    I agree that the solution recommended in this article is not a one-size-fits all solution for all cities in Ontario. But I think 30km/h on residential streets in Toronto is very reasonable.

  • Ines Alveano

    Columnists and comentarists on all Media influence people… That’s why I insist on educating them. Taking them out of their cars, leting them experience the world from a different point of view.

  • Ines Alveano

    Columnists and comentarists on all Media influence people… That’s why I insist on educating them. Taking them out of their cars, leting them experience the world from a different point of view.

  • Mehretube

    Almost all of our traffic laws are geared to help the speed of traffic not safety.

  • Mehretube

    Almost all of our traffic laws are geared to help the speed of traffic not safety.

  • Krystyna Lagowski

    I wrote about this on my blog idrivelikeagirl.blogspot.ca – thought it was ridiculous that just last week, another group wanted speed limits on highways INCREASED. Our population is polarized around these issues. I think it’s important to keep the conversation going, especially where road safety is concerned. Gotta start somewhere – changing behaviour and mindset takes time.

  • Krystyna Lagowski

    I wrote about this on my blog idrivelikeagirl.blogspot.ca – thought it was ridiculous that just last week, another group wanted speed limits on highways INCREASED. Our population is polarized around these issues. I think it’s important to keep the conversation going, especially where road safety is concerned. Gotta start somewhere – changing behaviour and mindset takes time.

  • Reaperexpress

    Really? The only time I see fewer than two two cyclists on my (bicycle) commute in Waterloo is in during snow storms

  • Reaperexpress

    What first me about North America’s preference for automotive convenience over safety is the design of our roads. I was learning about roads in The Netherlands, and I discovered that many of their major multi-lane road intersections are fully temporally segregated, which means that no traffic crosses paths with any other traffic. For example, when there a side-of-road bike path has a green light, it means all turns across the path are stopped. Here in N/A, in the same situation, right and left turns would still be permitted across the bike path, which is the main reason why our bike paths are so much more dangerous than Dutch ones.

    • Tallycyclist

      The right-turn-on-red in the US also doesn’t help pedestrians or cyclists, or even other motorists. The few intersections marked otherwise are a joke because most people still make turns, and not all of them realize it’s forbidden. Most of the sidewalks here “dip” down to make easy entry/exit through driveways and side streets for motorists. Another thing I’ve noticed is that we have stop signs almost everywhere, if not a stoplight. At least in northern Europe, they mostly have yield for 2 of the 4 directions of traffic. Most people I know don’t even know the white triangles mean yield.

  • Reaperexpress

    What first me about North America’s preference for automotive convenience over safety is the design of our roads. I was learning about roads in The Netherlands, and I discovered that many of their major multi-lane road intersections are fully temporally segregated, which means that no traffic crosses paths with any other traffic. For example, when there a side-of-road bike path has a green light, it means all turns across the path are stopped. Here in N/A, in the same situation, right and left turns would still be permitted across the bike path, which is the main reason why our bike paths are so much more dangerous than Dutch ones.

  • Reaperexpress

    Sorry, my previous post should start “What first struck me … “

  • Reaperexpress

    Sorry, my previous post should start “What first struck me … “

  • Tallycyclist

    The right-turn-on-red in the US also doesn’t help pedestrians or cyclists, or even other motorists. The few intersections marked otherwise are a joke because most people still make turns, and not all of them realize it’s forbidden. Most of the sidewalks here “dip” down to make easy entry/exit through driveways and side streets for motorists. Another thing I’ve noticed is that we have stop signs almost everywhere, if not a stoplight. At least in northern Europe, they mostly have yield for 2 of the 4 directions of traffic. Most people I know don’t even know the white triangles mean yield.

  • http://www.fullfat.ca/ Octavian

    I live in South East Kitchener. I commute to work close to UW, in the tech park. I don’t see any cyclists until I get closer to the university and sometimes, depending on my route, I barely see any. I can assure you, there are no cyclists on the Lackner/Shirley/Riverside/Bridgeport stretch. Maybe that will change as we approach summer.

  • http://www.fullfat.ca/ Octavian

    I think the low speed limit would work really well in core areas in any sized city/town.

  • TK

    checkout the post on BBC News about Toronto and cyclists:

    Cyclists accuse Toronto mayor Ford of ‘war on bikes’

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17914504

  • TK

    checkout the post on BBC News about Toronto and cyclists:

    Cyclists accuse Toronto mayor Ford of ‘war on bikes’

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-17914504

  • http://bicyclestc.blogspot.com/ Ryan

    It doesn’t surprise me with Toronto’s media…Personally I wouldn’t give any Sun media organizations the time of day.
    It gets better when you put on Toronto radio (1010 or 640) both right-wing, pro-car radio stations.
    It would be great if they even thought of bikes & pedestrians as an after thought.

  • http://bicyclestc.tumblr.com/ Ryan

    It doesn’t surprise me with Toronto’s media…Personally I wouldn’t give any Sun media organizations the time of day.
    It gets better when you put on Toronto radio (1010 or 640) both right-wing, pro-car radio stations.
    It would be great if they even thought of bikes & pedestrians as an after thought.

  • http://www.coopers-driving-school.com/ driving school Worcester

    Drivers generally face a problem when it snows and ice is accumulated on the roads. The roads become slippery and the tiers tend to skid as a result of that.

  • http://www.coopers-driving-school.com/ driving school Worcester

    Drivers generally face a problem when it snows and ice is accumulated on the roads. The roads become slippery and the tiers tend to skid as a result of that.

  • Snuzzled

    The citywide speed limit is 30 MPH (I think that’s roughly 48 KPH?) specifically because of the statistic you quoted. I don’t know how well it’s enforced, but I do know that even here in America where people would sooner give up a family pet than a car, the largest city in the nation is okay with limiting cars to 30 MPH if it means safer peds and cyclists.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/about/knowthespeedlimit.shtml for reference.

    • Snuzzled

      Meant to say the citywide speed limit in NYC is 30 MPH. Sorry, don’t know where my brain went.

  • Snuzzled

    The citywide speed limit is 30 MPH (I think that’s roughly 48 KPH?) specifically because of the statistic you quoted. I don’t know how well it’s enforced, but I do know that even here in America where people would sooner give up a family pet than a car, the largest city in the nation is okay with limiting cars to 30 MPH if it means safer peds and cyclists.

    http://www.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/about/knowthespeedlimit.shtml for reference.

  • Snuzzled

    Meant to say the citywide speed limit in NYC is 30 MPH. Sorry, don’t know where my brain went.