Toronto: A Lesson in How Not to Do Vision Zero

vests on walkers

We have been writing for some time on TreeHugger that Vision Zero in Toronto is a joke, but that is no longer the case; we have now learned that in fact, it is a tragedy.

Pedestrian and cycling activists have been complaining for years, as we watched the number of deaths and injuries continue to rise. Many of the victims were older, and the crashes disproportionately happened in Scarborough, a former borough to the east, which is full of wide, fast-moving arterial roads. Everyone was screaming for action, and the City politicians brought in a Vision Zero plan.

New York vision zero

© New York Vision ZeroIn New York City, and most North American Vision Zero initiatives, enforcement gets high billing as part of the plan. So it was with some dismay that Torontonians learned that the Toronto Police pretty much stopped enforcement in 2013, during the Rob Ford "war on the car" years. They had other uses for the money. David Rider of the Star writes:

Funding for dedicated enforcement

Funding for dedicated enforcement/ Toronto Police Services/Public Domain

Those advocates expressed shock and outrage when a report from Chief Mark Saunders revealed Toronto “does not currently have a complement of officers that are solely dedicated to enforcement duties on a daily basis,” with traffic services focused on crash investigations. “How many of the innocent, loved human beings killed since 2012 would still be alive today?” Jessica Spieker, a member of Friends and Families for Safe Streets who suffered a broken spine and brain injury when a driver hit her in 2015, asked board members, holding up photos and reading names of Torontonians killed on the streets.

Nobody has calculated how many people died because the Police were not enforcing the law. Rider writes:

Keagan Gartz of advocacy group Cycle Toronto said police failed Torontonians by not treating road safety as a priority with dozens of people, many of them senior citizens, dying while crossing mid-block, dying every year and many more suffering serious injuries.

Shawn Micallef nailed it in his article, Toronto police gaslighted us on traffic enforcement. Their neglect put lives at risk:

As little as two months ago, Saunders was on CBC Metro Morning downplaying the effects of less police enforcement. On Twitter, as deaths and grievous life-changing injuries continued to add up for months, individual police officers would routinely lecture pedestrians and cyclists about their behaviour when asked about lack of enforcement, as if drivers aren’t the ones operating a machine with deadly force. City data also shows pedestrians usually aren’t at fault when they get hit. That’s gaslighting, and it’s as enraging as it is scandalous because lives potentially could have been saved.

Money comes from Vision Zero Funding

Toronto Police Services/Public Domain

It gets worse. They are putting the police back on the beat, but only after shaking the city down for more money to pay the Sergeants and Constables overtime, and they are grabbing the money from the Vision Zero fund. So money that was earmarked for making streets safer, for road design and education, is going to pay the police to do what surely is their job. The police justify their actions in the report, according to Chris Selley of the Post:

..the official media line is borderline bewildering: “Toronto is a growing city with increasing police demand and high priority calls for service which include an immediate risk to life or the public,” a spokesperson told the Toronto Star. Pardon? How many people have to be thumped, mangled and squashed to death by this city’s spectacularly incompetent, sociopathic drivers before it’s considered “an immediate risk to life or the public”?

Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders

© Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders/ USMAN KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

Chief Saunders' response?

It gets even worse. Chief Saunders then lists among the problems in Toronto, bike lanes and AirPods, demonstrating that (a) he has no understanding of what Vision Zero actually is, and (b) no knowledge of the data which show that headphones are almost never a factor, or (c) there are lots of people, particularly older ones, who have trouble hearing anytime, but that doesn't mean they deserve to die in the roads.

It then just gets absurd. Scarborough City Councillor Cynthia Lai, who just a few months ago rejected Vision Zero initiatives in her ward, suggesting that the "main problems are left turns, and mid-block crossings by people chasing the bus," invited the Police to meet older people in her ward to give them fluorescent yellow arm bands. She says "it was about being 'proactive'." According to Mary Warren in the Star,

Footage of bands being strapped on seniors drew harsh words from road safety advocates on social media. Advocate Jessica Spieker called it “textbook victim blaming” that contributes to “misinformation” that pedestrians somehow contribute to their own deaths, when the “vast majority” of the time drivers and infrastructure are at fault. “To distribute arm bands to seniors flagrantly flies in the face of all of the evidence about road safety,” added Spieker, a spokesperson for advocacy groups Friends and Families for Safe Streets.

Then James Pasternak, the City Councillor who is actually the chair of the Infrastructure and Environment Committee, who should have some vague idea of how Vision Zero actually works, tweeted his two cents in support of Councillor Lai.

So now it appears that citizens have to dress up like construction workers when they go outside – even though we know that even on construction sites these vests are safety theatre, and that, of the "fatal four" causes of death on construction sites, only 5.1 percent were due to the kind of "caught-in-between" events that a vest might help.

Queen Anne Greenways hierachy
©. Queen Anne Greenways

© Queen Anne Greenways

Or that even the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) suggests that in the Hierarchy of Controls, it is the last thing one should be worried about, and only after fixing everything else.

Police car in bike lane

Police car in Gerrard Street Bike Lane/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

So this is where we are today in Toronto. A police chief blaming AirPods, the man in charge of Vision Zero wanting everyone in yellow vests, the Police Department taking Vision Zero money to do what they should have been doing all along, the mayor is missing in action, Vision Zero in shambles, and who knows how many people are dead. Welcome to Toronto. Bring your own yellow vest and keep out of their bike lane.