Vision Zero remains a punchline in Toronto, Canada

Vision Zero Challenge
Public Domain City of Toronto

City introduces a "Vision Zero Challenge" hackathon instead of actually implementing Vision Zero strategies.

We have previously explained how the City of Toronto adopted the idea of Vision Zero, "the Swedish approach to road safety thinking. It can be summarized in one sentence: No loss of life is acceptable." Toronto's bold plan was originally what I called Vision 31, since their grand ambition was really to reduce deaths by 20 percent over ten years (which would have meant about 31 deaths). The mayor called this....

...an “honest, realistic approach. We can go the old Toronto way, where there was either no plan at all, or a plan that had unattainable, unfunded objectives which sound good. Or we can take the new approach where we set realistic goals we will achieve.”

ToryCity of Toronto/ John Tory, Jaye Robinson and four properly dressed pedestrians/Public Domain

This was so risible and picayune an ambition that Mayor Tory and Chair of Public Works Jaye Robinson were virtually laughed off the podium, and quickly relabeled their plan "Vision Zero" without really understanding what the phrase means. So now they are back to objectives that sound good, like their latest Vision Zero Challenge.

The eight-week Vision Zero Challenge asks participating teams (individuals or groups) to develop data-driven solutions to help identify where policy-makers should prioritize transportation safety improvements in the immediate, medium and long term.

“We’re inviting civic innovators, data analysts, designers, planners, academics and advocates to participate in the challenge,” said Mayor John Tory. “We want to know how data, design and technology can be used to make all road users in Toronto, especially seniors and school children, safer immediately.”


The idea met with immediate ridicule on Twitter, because there is twenty years of experience with Vision Zero from around the world, and known best practices that reduce and eliminate deaths. There are also lots of data already; the City knows where people are getting killed and why.


Others, like transportation and urban design expert Gil Penalosa, think it is all politics.


The Vision Zero Challenge is estimated to cost the city C$ 118,000 which Lauren Petty of the CBC notes would pay for "nearly 40 new speed bumps or outfitting at least four school zones with safety signs and road paint, city numbers show."

Councillor Jaye Robinson justifies the exercise with the usual response for every silly idea, the "if it saves one life!" card. "Anything that helps us save one life in this city is certainly worth it." But others tell the CBC that it smells like politics.

The new competition "looks like a delay tactic," and an effort to shift responsibility for road safety from city officials and employees to the public, said Graham Larkin, executive director for national advocacy group Vision Zero Canada. "This hackathon," he said, "Is this really something we should be spending money on?"


I should note that other people whom I respect think that the Vision Zero Challenge is a great thing, "a great example of civic tech, ie. building technology and data solutions ~with~ residents, not just ~for~ them" and " The #VZChallenge is about improving policy. It’s about making the best use of the ~finite~ resources city council has allocated towards road safety." Luke Simcoe asks: "So, to the critics of the #VZChallenge: the city is asking for your help. Why not get involved? It's not too late. Sign on at Vision Zero Challenge."

The problem with implementing Vision Zero in North America is that it involves slowing down drivers, and they don't like it. We quoted Sean Marshall in an earlier post about what a tough sell it is:

Affluent neighbourhoods might be dotted with “drive slow – kids at play” lawn signs, but their residents and elected representatives will oppose new bike lanes and lower speed limits on the arterial roads they use to commute downtown.

They are more honest about it all in Waterloo, Ontario, a city not far from Toronto, where activist Mike Boos found this gem of a comment from the region's Transportation and Environmental Services commissioner, discussion Vision Zero:

There are things we can do for safety that would quickly reduce the number of collisions, but would be extremely inconvenient for people... There's no doubt on staff's side that there's a commitment to reduce all accidents. I would love to be able to eliminate deaths and serious injuries, but doing that may have some side effects that people don't like as much.

In Vision Zero, these side effects include slowing drivers down through road design, as well as serious enforcement and education, all of which are objectionable to drivers in a hurry. So instead, we get the Vision Zero Challenge, "an opportunity to create actionable, data-based solutions to improve safety for all road users.” Because Toronto.


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