In September 2021, I returned to school to complete a Master’s of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University. During an Urban Transportation Policy course, I created a report which reviewed the City of Kingston’s Vision Zero Road Safety Plan, which was later shared with relevant City of Kingston staff in 2022. The full text of this report is shared below and edited slightly with relavent hyperlinks. Although academic in nature with citations and references, it aims to help all those looking for clear directions to enhance municipal Vision Zero plans, especially within a Canadian Context.
More than 300 injuries and three fatalities occur on average each year due to road collisions in the City of Kingston (City of Kingston, 2019). In response, the Road Safety Plan (RSP) was developed by engineering firm CIMA+ and endorsed by the City of Kingston’s Council in September 2019. The purpose of the RSP was to develop a vision that considers a progressive reduction towards zero fatal and zero serious injury collisions and one that aligns with a Vision Zero philosophy (City of Kingston, 2019).
Launched in 1997 in Sweden, Vision Zero has been adopted in various forms as a program, policy, and statement within municipalities and transportation departments across the world. In Canada, Vision Zero has been acknowledged as a priority by two provinces and fifteen municipalities (Parachute, 2022). Its core principles are based on the perspective that it is fundamentally unacceptable that people are killed or seriously injured within a transportation system, and if they are, the fault is not with the individual who caused the harm, but with the design of the transportation system itself.
Kingston Road Safety Plan
The RSP provided by CIMA+ offered a comprehensive and high-level strategic document for the City of Kingston. In addition to providing a long-term vision, the RSP was also meant to analyze collision data, determine safety enhancement areas, recommend effective safety measures, provide a comprehensive set of countermeasures, and provide a framework to be incorporated within the work plans of the City of Kingston’s Transportation and Public Works Group.
The RSP was directed by a number of research tools and methodologies including the analysis of Kingston’s collision data, a literature review of existing Vision Zero-type plans, as well as a public engagement process that incorporated public surveys, open house events, and the establishment of a Road Safety Advisory Group (RSAG).
Recent Vision Zero Contributions
The following plans and commentaries were reviewed in order to identify recommendations for the implementation of Kingston’s RSP.
Vision Zero Plans
- Vision Zero 2.0 – Road Safety Plan Update (City of Toronto, 2019)
- Safe Mobility Strategy 2021-2025 (City of Edmonton, 2020)
- Change for Good Roads: An Intersectoral Approach to Urban Road Safety (Parachute Vision Zero, 2022).
- Canada and the Safe Systems Approach to Road Safety (Arason, 2019)
- Vision Zero Cities Op-Ed: Cheap, Rapid, and in Our Control (O’Connell, 2021)
- The Centre for Active Transportation response to Toronto’s Vision Zero 2.0 Road Safety Plan Update (TCAT, 2019)
- Walk Toronto’s comments on Vision Zero 2.0 Road Safety Plan (Walk Toronto, 2019)
By reviewing revised Vision Zero plans and recent commentaries, this report was able to identify four key recommendations which speak to themes or issues that are less prevalent or missing in Kingston’s RSP. The revised plans and commentaries are also influenced by professional expertise and road safety research, and as such, the recommendations incorporate research that predates the conception of Kingston’s RSP and will be cited accordingly.
Each recommendation contains an overarching statement, a discussion regarding the recommendation, and its relation to Kingston’s RSP.
Recommendation #1: Draw attention towards systems change
Language shapes how we understand the world. For example, in the past decade, there has been an enormous push by road safety advocates for police and media to describe car accidents as collisions, as the term ‘accident’ is often understood as an unpredictable event with no person held accountable, while ‘collision’ hints that an event is worth investigation.
With this in mind, Vision Zero proponents call for the need to move away from language that seeks to identify individual fault and blame, and instead focus efforts that identify and create safe systems for all road users. For example, instead of using language that centres behaviour or actions of a car driver such as speeding, Vision Zero requires a comprehensive review of the systems and conditions that allow the car driver to be able to speed. In the traditional approach, the discussion might centre on changing the carelessness of a driver, while the Vision Zero approach might seek to change the speed of a vehicle that would be fatal if it were to strike a pedestrian.
It is important to note that the RSP is written in a way that may reinforce individual responsibility in collisions instead of emphasizing the shared responsibility of a number of actors such as traffic engineers, urban planners, and elected officials. For example, the RSP begins by describing emphasis areas as “the highest priority collision types” for which actions will be developed and implemented to improve road safety. Emphasis areas are then used to frame collision data and define appropriate countermeasures. Of the seven emphasis areas, six highlight individual behaviour or individual type involved in a collision (aggressive driving, distracted driving, impaired driving, pedestrian collisions, cyclist collisions, young demographic), leaving one systemic emphasis area (intersections). By comparison, the City of Toronto’s Vision Zero 2.0 Road Safety Plan articulates these same emphasis areas, but the bulk of their plan is organized by effective actions including speed management strategy, road design improvements, and mid-block crossings.
This is not to say that systemic issues are not addressed in the RSP. Our review confirms the likely success of many of the countermeasures identified in the RSP tied with aggressive driving such as site-specific geometric design for safety improvements and reduced lane widths. The challenge remains, however, that the focus on the individual may obscure attention away from the systemic changes required in road design. As such, there are opportunities to train municipal staff, police, and media, in ways that effectively communicate the systems approach required of Vision Zero. As a final note on the matter, the commentaries reviewed consistently cautioned against language that perpetuates the idea that vulnerable road users such as pedestrians are responsible for avoiding collisions, such as pedestrian safety campaigns, which were acknowledged as an existing countermeasure in Kingston’s RSP.
Recommendation #2: Lower speed limits
One of Vision Zero’s central tenets is that human error will occur by all road users and that the road system should be designed to make sure these mistakes do not lead to serious injury or fatality. With that in mind, it is essential that Vision Zero plans consider the relationship between vehicle speed and fatality.
As the speed of a vehicle increases, the fatality risk of a pedestrian increases when a collision occurs. In well-publicized research, it was found that pedestrians were five to eight times more likely to die from a collision when the vehicle was traveling 50km/hour as compared to 30km/hour (OECD, 2012; Pasanen & Salminvaara, 1993). Researchers on traffic safety have proposed reducing speed limits for decades, arguing that lowering the speed limit is potentially the most effective road safety measure available (Kloeden, 2004).
Let us consider how vehicle speeds are acknowledged in the RSP. Indeed, specific policies that are likely to slow vehicle speeds are described including a traffic calming policy and the use of high-friction pavement. However, most policies related to vehicle speed support the enforcement of existing speed limits such as the use of photo radars, enhanced enforcement by police, and the establishment of the automated speed enforcement working group. Although the RSP online survey named the speed of the vehicles as one of the most common areas of concern for survey respondents, there is no apparent RSP countermeasure that articulates the need to decrease the City of Kingston’s speed limit.
Four points from Vision Zero plans and commentaries are worth noting related to the topic of speed:
- Setting a lowered default speed limit is encouraging, but recategorizing all roads based on conflict density and activity level, as opposed to the approximate speed of drivers, should be a priority for all Vision Zero plans.
- Vision Zero cities such as Edmonton and Toronto have moved forward with lowering their default city speed limit to 40km/hour with many commentaries recommending 30km/hour for local roads. For the Kingston context, it should be known that the Province of Ontario amended the Highway Traffic Act recently to allow municipalities to designate areas through by-laws and prescribe a rate of speed that is lower than 50 km/hour.
- It is well understood that imposing speed limits and speed enforcement on their own are limited measures. The long-term goal of lowering vehicle speed requires the restructuring of roads to be self-enforcing by design.
- Although perhaps a politically challenging stance, traffic congestion, which necessarily slows vehicle speed, is a successful strategy for limiting the potential rise in collision fatality rates.
Recommendation #3: Apply an equity lens
Taking an equity lens to road safety acknowledges that some people are more at risk of serious injury and fatality than others, and the strategies to improve their safety must consider their unique needs and experiences. That said, our current and historical approach to road safety design often excludes vulnerable road users such as those with lower incomes, older adults, children, racialized communities, people with disabilities, and most acutely, non-vehicle drivers.
Consequently, those same users are more at risk of serious injuries and fatalities on the road. As those with lower income are more likely to walk or take public transit, they are more exposed to vehicles, and therefore, collisions. Although data in Canada is limited, research shows that people with lower income, racialized communities, and other disadvantaged populations are disproportionately affected by traffic collisions (Atlantic Collaborative on Injury Prevention, 2011). Child pedestrians who belong to visible minority groups are also at a greater risk of being involved in traffic collisions (O’Toole & Christie, 2019; Chakravarthy, 2012). In fact, The City of Toronto found that vulnerable road users make up 10% of overall collisions in the City, but account for 74% of serious injuries and fatalities (City of Toronto, 2019). Even when safety is prioritized and financed, those living in higher-income neighbourhoods tend to receive a disproportionate amount of road safety interventions (Fecht, 2012; Rothman, 2020).
In practice, applying an equity lens can take a number of forms. A good place to start is ensuring that the experience and needs of those most at-risk is understood and prioritized. In the case of Kingston’s RSP, there is a significant potential to integrate equity into its road safety research, public engagement, and implementation. A simple strategy might be to include equity-related questions in a future RSP survey. Another might be to interview specific equity-seeking organizations or public transit-dependent residents. For example, the RSAG included individuals representing fourteen organizations and, except for the Municipal Accessibility Advisory Committee, no other equity-seeking networks, interest groups, or vulnerable road users were included. Most notably, as a younger demographic was highlighted as an RSP emphasis area, having younger adults speak about their experience could have added significant insight into effective and appropriate safety measures.
One stand-out example of how a municipality might incorporate an equity lens into an existing Vision Zero plan was the approach taken by the City of Edmonton. Five years after implementing the first major Vision Zero strategy in Canada, the City of Edmonton created a Safe Mobility Strategy 2021-2025, naming equitable safety as an essential element of its plan. To Edmonton, equitably safety meant analyzing collision and other social equity data and acknowledging that “some parts of our community need extra focus and attention” (City of Edmonton, 2020). In addition, Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) was added as an important tool and equity lens to review and adapt its entire road safety plan based on how different genders and diverse people experience policies, programs, and initiatives.
Recommendation #4: Seek alternative datasets
In order to inform equitable decisions, socio-economic determinants and other equity-related factors in road collisions should be comprehensively and consistently documented. However, it was noted by the commentaries that demographic and racial data are not often accounted for in Canadian collision data. For example, Transport Canada’s National Collision Database does not track any socioeconomic data of those involved in collisions, while Statistics Canada’s Canadian Vital Statistics documents socio-economic data of all fatalities, but actual road collisions are hidden under the much broader category of accidental death.
Still, the recent updated Vision Zero plans by Edmonton and Toronto emphasize comprehensive data gathering as a priority. In Toronto, on top of gathering traditional collision data that includes road characteristics and traffic volumes, particular attention is made to demographic data of vulnerable populations through partnerships with Toronto Public Health and the Toronto Police. In Edmonton, 311 traffic complaints were analyzed, and found that areas with higher number of complaints tended to be wealthier, while areas with high number of collisions with fewer traffic complaints tended to be lower-income and may not speak English or French as their primary language (City of Edmonton, 2020). Edmonton used this information to prioritize in-depth meetings with community associations in the high collision areas and were then able to uncover a number of overlooked barriers to data collection and opportunities for area-specific road safety improvements.
The Kingston RFP confirms that an annual road safety report that monitors progress will be developed and made available to the public. It is recommended that the City of Kingston be proactive in this regard, similar to the City of Edmonton, in offering annual reports that are easy-to-read and publicly accessible which include collision data, infrastructure projects, maps, financial information, lessons learned, and next steps. The City of Kingston should also make its municipal collision dataset publicly available to Open Data Kingston to support full transparency with the public and create opportunities for secondary analysis.
This report offered four high-level recommendations based on two recent municipal Vision Zero plans and five intersectoral road safety commentaries. As the report was not meant to be exhaustive, there remain many valid road safety priorities that are worth further investigation, namely financing opportunities, interdepartmental collaboration, rural area considerations, and, important to Kingston’s success, the full implementation and a 5-year update to the Active Transportation Master Plan. While this report’s recommendations are appropriate for the City of Kingston, it is important to acknowledge the significant challenges to road safety that reside outside of its direct authority. This report will conclude with a brief comment on these challenges, specifically, the forces which objectively cause physical harm to humans in a collision: exposure and momentum.
If one of the aims of Vision Zero is to decrease exposure to vehicles, then there must be further considerations in place to reduce car use. Recent research points out that a one percent reduction in vehicle kilometres travelled generally results in a one percent drop in collisions (Litman, 2017). Unfortunately, the number of vehicles in Canada has increased by 50% in the past two decades, currently at an all-time high, with almost one vehicle registered per every resident of Canada (Statistics Canada, 2019). It needs to be acknowledged that the strategies that support Vision Zero will be significantly counterweighted by the sheer number of new vehicles and new drivers on the road which necessarily increases every resident’s exposure to vehicles. Reducing vehicle use will not be achieved on a local level but in coordination with regional, provincial, and federal agencies.
Further from the purview of a municipality is its relation to federal regulation and the design of vehicles. Over the past fifty years, a significant effort has been made to improve the safety of people inside vehicles including the requirements for seat belts and airbags. Now, it is essential we turn our attention to the safety of people outside of vehicles, and to do that we must look at the momentum of vehicles. Large and heavy Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) now represent the majority of all passenger vehicle sales in Canada. Due to their increased momentum, an SUV is two to three times more deadly to pedestrians as compared to being struck by a regular car (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2015). Fortunately, regulations such as enforcing safer vehicle standards for the specific protection of pedestrians and outright bans on SUVs are taking shape in Europe. As such, to fully realize Kingston’s RSP, the municipality must consider strategies to advocate federal regulators and politicians to enforce similar standards for the Canadian context.
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