Vision Zero nowhere in sight as city dithers with new Road Safety Action Plan

On Monday, November 25, Mayor Jim Watson and Coun. Stephen Blais launched the 2020-2024 Road Safety Action Plan.

To say this document was eagerly anticipated would be an understatement. For years, Ecology Ottawa and other local groups have been advocating for Vision Zero – a plan to eliminate severe injury and death on Ottawa’s streets. Yet when tangible policy reforms for Vision Zero have been proposed – as in June 2019, with a motion from Coun. Catherine McKenney – council was told to trust in the process. The June 2019 Vision Zero motion was ultimately rejected by council. The reasoning was that road safety was already a city priority, and that Vision Zero was “just a brand.”

In other words, council didn’t want a policy declaration that failed to amount to meaningful progress on road safety. Council chose to wait for meaningful action, and the upcoming Road Safety Action Plan was the vehicle for that action.

If the new Road Safety Action Plan was designed to signal that the city was finally prioritizing the safety of vulnerable road users, it has badly missed its mark. While we commend the staff that worked diligently and consulted widely, the document lacks ambition at a time when cities around the world are re-thinking their transportation networks to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists.

The Road Safety Action Plan lacks ambition in two major ways:

  • First, it advances a piecemeal target on road safety – a 20% reduction of severe injury and death by 2024 – rather than a meaningful path to zero. Even if we were to accept the argument that the city has to start somewhere (which begs the question of why the city hasn’t started in the first place), we would expect to see recommendations for long-term reductions to zero somewhere in this document. This language was nowhere to be found.
  • Second, this document tinkers at the margins when it should be addressing meaningful policy changes to disrupt the overwhelming dominance of cars and trucks in Ottawa’s transportation and design regime. The document offers well thought-out solutions, or “safety countermeasures,” at the level of engineering, education and enforcement. Some of these touch on important policy directions, such as speed reductions and no-right turn on red restrictions. It does not venture anything more ambitious, even as a thought experiment. Bolder ideas such as car lane reductions, car-free zones, mandatory changes in street design and vehicle type restrictions (e.g., banning large trucks from downtown) are not even hinted at. And yet other cities are experimenting with these, and much more ambitious ideas, as we speak.

Beyond this high-level summary, here are a few other notable aspects of the report.

The authors say the City of Ottawa has not yet demonstrated adequate political will, and worry if it ever will

As the report points out (and contrary to some public statements made by the mayor and Councillor Blais), Ottawa still has a long way to go if it wants to take meaningful action on road safety. Ottawa’s fatality rate of 2.7 per 100,000 population is many times higher than that of leading cities like Stockholm, with 0.4 fatalities. So, while Ottawa may compare favourably to national averages (like Sweden’s), its level of ambition remains far behind leading cities.

The Action Plan clearly states that a business-as-usual approach to road safety will not result in reductions to severe injury and death. The authors 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 [Fatal and Major injury] collisions will be achieved, especially in the context of increasing traffic volumes” (pp. 17-18). Importantly, in order to effectively reduce collisions through safety programs, “significant additional resources are required” (p. 18).

The focus on cost, while important, misses the broader conversation about meaningful policy solutions

Increased investment in safety countermeasures, such as the ones proposed in this document, would certainly be money well-spent. The report authors offer a range of safety ideas, such as roundabouts, better signals and red light cameras.

But are these proposals – and the $4 million price tag associated with them – enough? Leaving cost aside for a moment, let’s talk about what the report fails to mention: policy reforms that would address safety challenges at a systemic level and allow the city to avoid future investments in retroactive fixes to the system. Imagine that streets and communities were systematically designed in a way that made safety “countermeasures” less necessary; that streets were built to prioritize vulnerable road users rather than motorists, and did not have to be retrofitted after the fact and at great cost. Imagine ambitious policy was the primary means by which the City of Ottawa sought to institute sweeping reforms to road safety.

While the authors reference the importance of existing city policies such as the 2015 Complete Streets Implementation Plan, they fail to mention that this policy still lacks the “teeth” needed to fundamentally change how roads are built in Ottawa. The Complete Streets framework is designed to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists over motorists, but because of a wide range of possibilities for what the City might consider “complete,” we’re still seeing roads built without sidewalks in school zones, and new arterial roads being without segregated bike lanes. The policy gaps in the current transportation system will not be addressed by the few measures proposed in the document, such as lower speed limits and some right-turn-on-red restrictions.

If we want to focus on cost, we must address spending priorities at the City of Ottawa

While the road safety action plan proposes $31.5 million in measures and initiatives, only a small portion of this is new money. The city was already spending $25 million in 2019, and was budgeting a similar amount for 2020 before the new funding announcement.

2020 will only see a one-time cash infusion of only $4 million. And while spending increases on road safety are welcome, the $4 million addition must be put into the broader context of the city’s spending priorities. As we have discussed elsewhere, the city is making this marginal increase in a budget that overwhelmingly favours investments in road growth projects, to the tune of $66.2 million.

Ottawa’s addiction to road growth projects is more than a misallocation of precious resources that indirectly creates budget pressures in other areas. At a fundamental level, there are trade-offs between designing and building a city for cars, and doing so for vulnerable road users such as cyclists and pedestrians. Every new car-oriented community means more cars on the road, which makes our streets more dangerous. These trade-offs are not acknowledged in the report.

So, while cost is a consideration here, it shouldn’t be the major one. The root problem is political prioritization, and it’s clear that the City of Ottawa continues to disproportionately favour cars over other modes of travel in our city.

The authors are ambivalent about whether the City of Ottawa actually wants Vision Zero, or accepts Vision Zero principles

In the document’s opening pages, there are some reassuring words that indicate that Ottawa shares Vision Zero objectives while using different language. This Road Safety Action Plan is the third iteration of a model – called “Towards Zero” – that is “built on the integrated approach and adopted the Swedish Vision Zero model” (p.1). As with Vision Zero, the “Towards Zero model holds the understanding that no loss of life is acceptable from motor vehicle collisions” (p. 1). The document also claims to have adopted the “Safe System Approach to road safety” (SSA), which has the principle that “human life and health are paramount and take priority over mobility and other objectives of the road traffic system (i.e., life and health can never be exchanged for other benefits within the society)” (p. 1).

Yet, it’s also clear that Road Safety Action Plan doesn’t hold these views. After all, this is the same document that essentially establishes an “acceptable” level of severe injury and death in Ottawa. That is, a 20% reduction from today’s levels by 2024.

The document also seems to reject the Vision Zero premise that severe injury and death is a product of bad design, and that choices about design are fundamentally political ones. In other words, a Vision Zero perspective states that deaths are not accidental – they are preventable, and it is incumbent upon society and policymakers to take this into account. Instead, the Road Safety Action Plan states, “Serious injuries and deaths are an emotional subject, especially when they are preventable” (p. 48, emphasis added).

It would be helpful to know the degree to which the authors, and city officials, think road deaths are preventable. If their fundamental assumption is – as it seems to be – that a certain amount of death and severe injury is an inevitable feature of the transportation system, while others are preventable, why do they even claim adherence to Vision Zero ideal in the first place? City officials have cautioned about the “empty rhetoric” that might come with a Vision Zero declaration not backed by meaningful measures. This document is guilty of a similar charge – declaring adherence to Vision Zero while failing to follow through on what that vision entails.

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