Edward Keenan: We know how to make roads safer. We just have to do it
They called it the “Boulevard of Death.”
Formally known as Queens Boulevard, it was a famously dangerous street in New York City. Between 1990 and 2014, 186 people — including 138 pedestrians — met their end on this one roadway. In 1997 alone, 18 pedestrians died there.
According to a New York Times report, when New York Mayor Bill de Blasio set out to address its dangers, he phrased it as a Sinatra-inspired challenge: “if we could fix it there, we could fix it anywhere.”
And they did — his administration and those that came before his. Beginning in the 1990s and ramping up in 2013, New York officials made a series of changes, in stages, to the street. And eventually they worked. There were no pedestrian or cyclist fatalities at all on Queens Boulevard between the beginning of 2014 and the end of 2017.
How did they do it? As summarized by the Times, they narrowed and removed some car traffic lanes, and decreased speed limits by 5 miles per hour. They increased the amount of time given to pedestrians to cross the street and increased the number of pedestrian crossings. They redesigned sidewalks at intersections to narrow the crossing in some places. They introduced bike lanes and larger medians protected by barriers to the road. They added cameras with photo radar near schools.
If you want to make roads safer, you can. How to do it is not a mystery. Slow traffic down through laws, enforcement, and — especially, crucially — design improvements. Put infrastructure on the street to protect cyclists and pedestrians. Pay close attention to intersection design. Voila.
It isn’t a one-street fluke in New York City. There, two mayoral administrations in a row have made road safety a top priority, and have radically redesigned how streets in that city work. There are ups and downs in annual numbers, but in the four years between 2001 and 2004, there were an average of 179 pedestrian deaths in the streets each year. In the four years since 2014, the average has been 132. That’s progress.
Better yet, last year only 101 pedestrians were killed on the road in New York City, the lowest number since records began being kept, back in the horse-and-buggy era when more than 400 people died in traffic in 1910. In all, among all road users including drivers and car passengers, the number of road fatalities in New York has been cut by 45 per cent since 2001.
We could do that in Toronto, if we wanted to. Instead, it seems to me that we — the mass of our politicians, but also the general public I hear talking about it and those who write to me about it — prefer to loudly debate whether bad drivers or bad cyclists or bad pedestrians are more to blame for any given death. We prefer to “keep traffic moving.” We fight and delay any proposed safety measures for fear they’ll slow car commute times by even a minute. We prefer to think that if everyone just smartens up a bit, the safety problem will solve itself.
You may be familiar with the recent statistics here. Twenty-two pedestrian and cyclist deaths so far this year, according to the Star’s count. Ninety-three pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the two years since the city’s Vision Zero road safety initiative was launched. According to Toronto police, including all road users, 593 people killed in traffic collisions between 2007 and the end of 2017. And almost 12,000 more seriously injured in that time.
The number of people killed here in traffic has risen over the past few years from earlier in the decade: between 2010 and 2013 we averaged 40.7 traffic fatalities per year, while over the past three years we’ve averaged 68.
As New York City seems to be moving in the right direction, we seem to be moving the other way (just as an OECD study found, the writer John Lorinc noted in a recent essay, Canada as a whole is and much of the United States is).
The thing about New York’s success is that it isn’t even that remarkable compared to other cities in the world. Stockholm, Sweden, the birthplace of the Vision Zero concept, has a traffic fatality per 100,000 rate of 0.7, less than one third that of both New York’s and Toronto’s.
Stockholm didn’t cut its fatality rate dramatically by educating people and more strictly enforcing laws. They did it by slowing urban traffic and by re-engineering their roads to reduce serious injuries and fatalities. “Most of the people in the safety community had invested in the idea that safety work is about changing human behaviour,” Matts-Ake Belin, one of the architects of the program told CityLab in 2014. “Vision Zero says instead that people make mistakes ... let’s create a system for the humans instead of trying to adjust the humans to the system.”
Lower speeds, better protections, designs that discourage collisions and encourage safety.
We know what works. We can see its success even on the so-called “Boulevard of Death.” The obstacle to ending our own killing streets is not knowledge. It’s caring enough to bother applying it.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire