How do we make Toronto’s streets safer? A car-loving city councillor and a Vision Zero advocate square off

How do we make Toronto’s streets safer? A car-loving city councillor and a Vision Zero advocate square off

So far, in 2018, 22 pedestrians have been killed in traffic in Toronto. Three cyclists—including one who was riding on Bloor Street, where there are protected bike lanes—have died in collisions with cars. All of this would seem shocking if it weren’t so routine. Traffic fatalities in the city have been trending upwards for the past decade.

Toronto’s Vision Zero strategy is supposed to help solve this problem by using data to implement a number of new safety measures on the city’s streets. But not everyone agrees on the approach: much of the Vision Zero strategy focuses on controlling the flow of cars (because cars, after all, are the most dangerous things on the road), meaning Toronto drivers are increasingly having to cope with things like lower speed limits, or new bike lanes.

In an attempt to get to the root of the dispute, we set up a conversation between Graham Larkin, the executive director of Vision Zero Canada, a group that advocates nationally for Vision Zero principles, and Giorgio Mammoliti, a councillor for Toronto’s Ward 7 and a member of the city’s Public Works and Infrastructure Committee, who has said that he doesn’t believe bikes belong in mixed traffic on city streets. Here’s what happened.

I have some questions for both of you. I may cut you off from time to time just to keep things moving, but I’ll try not to do that unless I have to.

Mammoliti: So, maybe I’ll take the lead just to say that while I do appreciate everybody’s efforts, I think we’re creating more congestion by forcing an agenda through. Vision Zero, as I understand it, doesn’t just mean bicycle lanes, and I think that many people at the city of Toronto have taken Vision Zero and turned it into a bicycle lane approach. There should be a real effort to separate bicycles from traffic completely.

Larkin: I totally agree that Vision Zero is not just about bike lanes. I applaud your recognition of that. In the Rob Ford days, everything got reduced to a kind of zero-sum, cars-versus-bikes mentality, where it was imagined that what’s good for bikes is bad for cars. That can be politically effective, but it’s not borne out by the facts. The fact is, the main cause of congestion on our streets—any streets, in Toronto or anywhere else—is overdependence on private motor vehicles, which take up a ridiculous amount of space per person.

Mammoliti: So, the question is, how do you do it right? Slapping down bike lanes is not the right way to do it, and I gotta say: you mention the Rob Ford era. If it weren’t for people like Adam Vaughan, who declared a war on the car, I think everything would have been much easier. We’ve got an effort to get rid of the car. You’re being used by people like Mike Layton and Gord Perks and everyone else whose agenda is to get rid of the car. It’s when you stop the car for some reason that everybody gets confused, including the pedestrians at intersections.

So, Graham, are you trying to get rid of the car?

Larkin: No, no, no. I do think we need to establish a motor hierarchy that gets our priorities right. All the cool cities, all the cities that are really tackling congestion, are prioritizing walking, and then cycling, and then public transit, then things like service vehicles, then maybe car-sharing and then, finally, the least efficient mode, which is the private car.

Councillor Mammoliti, you’ve said you don’t believe bikes belong anywhere on Toronto’s streets.

Mammoliti: I believe the bicycle lanes should be separate from the road completely. I don’t believe that sharing the road with the bicycles is safe, and I’ll fight for that forever. If you separated bicycle lanes from the roads, you’d get guys like me saying, “Okay, well, that kind of makes a bit of sense.”

Larkin: But, when you say that, are you for or against some type of protected bike lane on the road?

Mammoliti: I support a dedicated bike lane on the side of the road, and it’s not shared on the same road as the driver. All it takes is a bit of coordination and effort instead of ramming things through. Yes, you’re going to have to spend a little more money and I get that, but I’d rather do that than ram everything onto the roads, which seems to be happening in the downtown part of the city.

Is this necessarily a zero-sum game, Councillor Mammoliti? I think what Graham is saying is that we can design roads to accommodate everyone.

Mammoliti: I’d say to you, design the roads accordingly. Don’t reduce lanes of traffic, which we’ve done. Don’t reduce the lanes, and increase on both sides lanes for the bicycles separately.

But you’re dealing with a really tight city grid, so where do you find the space?

Mammoliti: Find the quarters that work, right? And there’s quarters that might work. And I might even say, let’s stop traffic on particular roads to allow bicycles on there—and only bicycles. But we’ve gotta do it in a concerted effort, so you’re not tying up all the other roads. We haven’t thought about how to do it in the downtown part of the city. We’re rushing it through.

Larkin: I would certainly disagree with you on the “don’t reduce lanes” front. I would point to New York City, where they took out lanes and they put in parking-protected bike lanes. It doesn’t increase congestion if you do it right.

Mammoliti: You can never reduce congestion by eliminating lanes for cars.

Larkin: That’s simply untrue. The data doesn’t bear that out.

Mammoliti: Well, that’s because people who do the data are sympathetic to your cause. If you were to get an independent person who doesn’t really take one side or the other, I think you’ll find it different.

Do you at least agree that bike infrastructure promotes safety to some degree?

Mammoliti: A few years ago, we had nowhere near the amounts of bicycle accidents that we’re seeing today. And I don’t have the study in front of me, but I can tell you that I think the reason for that is because we have just simply said we are putting these lanes in to share with the cars, and whoever wants to use them is welcome to use them. You’re getting a lot more people using bicycles in the downtown part of the city. I think if we separated them, you’d get fewer accidents.

Larkin: Well, on Bloor Street the bike lanes doubled the number of people biking on the street. My understanding was that there was a huge reduction in conflict between all road users after the installation of the lanes.

Mammoliti: That’s absolutely not true. The longer people wait in a traffic jam, the more frustrated they get.

Larkin: I’m not talking about general ideas or principles, I’m talking about the actual statistics as reported by the city. There was a drop in collisions.

Mammoliti: Again, I’m going to say that I’m not a believer in who has done those studies. I think they’ve been skewed and I said that at committee and I maintain that—that they’ve been skewed to be written a particular way, and that’s to accommodate the politicians at city hall who are forcing this through.

Larkin: Okay, so what was the methodology, then?

Mammoliti: I’m questioning the integrity of the reports, I’m questioning the integrity of the people who write them—

Larkin: On what grounds are you questioning?

Mammoliti: Political grounds.

Larkin: But how about data grounds?

Mammoliti: They’ve been forced to write the reports a particular way.

Larkin: What is your evidence, though?

Mammoliti: They didn’t even do the counts [of cyclists] when they should have. They did them periodically during the day, when the cars weren’t there. Alright?

Larkin: But what I see is them making an effort to do evidence-based public policy and studies. And you’re dismissing it on principle, because they’re on the other side. I mean, that—

Mammoliti: I work at city hall and I see it. There’s a lot of politics going on at city hall, and the reports that come out of it are very political. In this case, I hold firm to it. I’ve always said road studies should be done by a third party, nowhere near city hall. Let them do the studies and we’ll figure it out from there.

There’s one statistic that I think we can all agree is real, and that’s the number of fatalities that happen on Toronto streets. Pedestrian deaths have been trending upwards for the past decade. Can we eliminate those deaths without bringing about the sorts of negative outcomes Councillor Mammoliti is talking about?

Larkin: There are certainly things you can’t fix. Cars are getting bigger, and therefore more dangerous. I think we really need to fix it with infrastructure.

Mammoliti: I don’t disagree with infrastructure argument. It’s just that we don’t have the money. So, if we don’t have the money, we can’t force it. That has been my problem all along. I agree that larger sidewalks are needed, better signage is needed and enforcement is needed. I also think it shouldn’t just be the car that gets blamed. And you heard the first comments out of Graham’s mouth were about the car. Why aren’t we talking about the pedestrian who’s using their phone while crossing the intersection?

Larkin: Basically, because pedestrian education doesn’t work. We can’t fix that, anyway, so let’s not worry about that.

Regarding your point about saving money: where do we find money? Well, we save money on things like “Slow Down for Kids” signs and various other kinds of education. Trying to change road users’ behaviour through signs and tweets, I think it’s crazy. We can save money by investing in safe systems and not in education and enforcement.

Mammoliti: Graham, but it costs billions of dollars to do what you want to do, and the savings on little signs is probably $3,000 per ward. You’re not going to be able to save the money that we actually need. If you want the infrastructure that you’re talking about, you do not eliminate lanes of traffic.

Larkin: Car lanes are an expensive thing to keep up. We’re spending billions on rebuilding freeways. Maybe the money is better spent elsewhere.

Mammoliti: You’re only forcing guys like me to believe that in fact you do want to get rid of the car.

Larkin: I’m not forcing anything. Nor am I saying get rid of the car. What I’m saying is, get rid of some car lanes.

Mammoliti: There doesn’t seem to be any compromise, there just doesn’t. It’s guys like me saying, “Let’s compromise, let’s figure it out. Don’t reduce the lanes.”

Larkin: That’s not compromising, to say “don’t reduce the lanes.” That’s putting your foot down and saying we can’t do this.

Mammoliti: What’s funny is that we do all of this arguing for a few months of the year. Then in the winter nobody uses those lanes. I don’t see the logic for this.

Larkin: Well, they do it in other cities, as you know. The weather, that’s just an excuse. You know, the winds are crazy in the Netherlands. I’ve seen videos of bikes literally just blowing across the street. They’ve got their problems, too, you know?

Mammoliti: Wonderful. So, let’s create a system where you’re actually plowing the snow in the winter for cyclists. The question becomes, where does that money come from? We don’t have it. So, your efforts should be put towards the federal government and freeing up all the money that you need to be able to do all of this.

The problem is, you’re buying into everybody else’s argument about reducing lanes to traffic. I’m one of those guys that thinks we need more highways.

Larkin: That’s a very 1950s mentality, Giorgio, and it didn’t work. It’s excruciatingly costly. Like, you’re talking about costs. Cars are a lot rougher on the roads than bikes and people walking.