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Strategic Road Safety Plan: my first review

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Today, the City released its Strategic Road Safety Action Plan. It’s a weighty document that outlines the measures it proposes Council adopt to reduce the number of collisions resulting in fatalities and major injuries (FMIs). On top of around $27.5 million being spent on safety measures today, they propose putting an additional $4 million into a variety of initiatives and projects to reduce FMIs.

The plan’s announcement was rocky. Rather than a top-line emphasis on achieving zero FMIs for Ottawa, its proponents announced that Ottawa will seek to reduce those by 20% through 2024. Observers have asserted the obvious: 20% isn’t good enough.

However, I’ve tonight had a first read of the document. While the goal – and it’s probably too obvious to be stated – is to achieve zero FMIs, the plan is clearly to set out an achievable milestone on the path to zero. What I applaud about the plan is that it sets out measures that would help us get to zero faster. What I chafe against is that it clearly sets out that we won’t propose taking those measures because of the cost. We could do more, but the plan makes clear that we won’t.

There are elements of the plan to cheer, but there is more that rankles. The lack of political will to more aggressively address a zero target will be the key failing most targeted by safe roads advocates. In the coming days we’ll hear much more, I’m sure, about some of the plan’s underlying assumptions and principles that will be barriers to achieving zero FMIs.

It’s not all bad, of course. At a high level, the plan is an excellent look at the state of Ottawa’s street safety, with a comprehensive look at how that can be improved. Written by consulting firm CIMA Canada, it sets out practical measures that can help. With an exhaustive look at Ottawa’s safety data, it sets out four priority areas to address (intersections, high-risk drivers, vulnerable road users and rural roadways) with concrete actions that could be taken through engineering, enforcement, and education (the three Es).

There are nuggets of high-level truth buried in the report that deserve highlighting. For example, on pages 17/18, the consultants write: “If the current safety efforts by the City and its partner agencies are maintained but not altered the likelihood is low that a significant reduction in either the number or severity of FMI collisions will be achieved, especially in the context of increasing traffic volumes. To succeed in effectively reducing collisions within the City, by enhancing existing programs or developing new ones, significant additional resources are required.” It’s a bold assertion, and the plan makes no comment on whether the additional $4 million proposed in the plan constitutes a significant enough investment.

On page 52, the authors boldly assert that: “The biggest threat to pedestrian and cycling safety have to do with the fact that the existing road network facilitates motor vehicles traveling at high speeds, and a general lack of space to accommodate segregated facilities.” (I’ll set aside for the time being the obvious question of whether a lack of space is due to geography, or choices in how we’ve allocated that space.)

The report contains multiple actions that could be taken to enhance the safety of street users across all four priority areas. Many of those measures have beside them a corresponding reduction in the number of FMIs, usually expressed as a range. Among those with the highest impact are measures such as building more roundabouts, pedestrian crossovers, rumble strips, using automated enforcement tools, high-traction asphalt, intersection lighting and, no surprise, expanding the cycling network.

To be fair, the proposed plan incorporates many of these. We’ll keep spending what we’re already spending on those measures. Importantly, we’ll start designing new and re-built roads to keep speeds to 30 km/h. We’ll put new money into traffic calming near schools, and we’ll roll out automated enforcement cameras for speed and red-light running. Staff have proposed putting money into hiring six people to look at where they can eliminate beg buttons and revert reds, and to do further analysis on intersection re-designs, safety programs and more.

The problem is that the most effective measures are also the most expensive, and $4 million doesn’t buy much progress. We’re not building safe infrastructure quickly enough to make a meaningful dent in FMIs for vulnerable street users. For example, the additional money will allow the City to install two more pedestrian signals over what it was already planning on ($400,000), and implement changes at one high-volume cycling/vehicle interaction location ($380,000). There will be additional funding to undertake design for two intersections that warrant new traffic signals ($500,000).

With minimal funding, we get minimal results.

There are several underlying assumptions in the report that need to be challenged. There is a one-liner in the staff response to an earlier McKenney/Menard motion on cycling that essentially says that paint is good enough bike infrastructure (ask anyone riding Scott Street or Island Park Drive if that’s true). There are assertions that education can help that will rub many the wrong way. For example, the utility of police bicycle safety blitzes brings out the cynic in me when police and City staff too often park in the bike lanes they’re supposed to protect.

There are multiple assertions that infrastructure users are expected to use it in the way its designers intended, which will raise the hackles of cyclists who face pointless “walk your bike” signs on multi-use paths at intersections.

A short section explores the potential safety benefits of future autonomous vehicle technology, which is likely to be of comfort to no one, and at this point should not even enter a discussion of real-world safety on streets.

All in all, the plan and associated documents will perhaps be best remembered not as a turning point in making our streets safer but as a snapshot in time when Ottawa City Council received a comprehensive list of actions that could be taken to save lives, and decided 20% over four years with no target for achieving zero was good enough.

Every year in Ottawa, roughly 24 people die on our streets, and another 125 suffer a major injury. If we accept this report without taking more aggressive action, that might go down to 19 deaths and 100 injured seriously per year by 2024. That’s not good enough. The plan has been written with the assumption that implementation of all its good recommendations will be self-funded. It doesn’t have to be that way. We won’t achieve zero FMIs overnight. With the political will to achieve that however, we can do better than 20% in the next four years.

Posted November 25, 2019