Want a crosswalk in your neighbourhood? Good luck

Like many people across the city Kathy Rowe is hoping a crosswalk can be installed at a busy intersection in her neighbourhood.

Pedestrians at the Scarborough intersection of Meadowvale Road and Lawrence Avenue East, including staff and students at a nearby elementary school, face six lanes of traffic. It’s about 1.7 km between safe crossings, which means many people end up darting between cars to reach TTC stops.

“It’s a really, really big concern” said Rowe, president of the local community association, who feels they’ve just been “extremely lucky,” that no one has been hit.

But she may be waiting forever. According to estimates from city staff, a surprisingly low number of crosswalks have actually been installed over the last five years.

Only 22 crosswalks have been put up across the city from 2014 to 2018, while more than 700 have been requested, a rate of about three per cent. Those low numbers, and the red tape that goes along with them, conflict with the city’s Vision Zero road safety approach, argue two city councillors, who say it’s time to make it easier and faster to get crosswalks, especially as the death toll on Toronto’s streets continues to climb.

Coun. Jennifer McKelvie (Ward 25 Scarborough—Rouge Park) put through a request to the city for the Meadowvale and Lawrence crosswalk last spring. But, she said, even with her best efforts, that process is slow.

“I feel like there needs to be some common sense applied to it especially in light of Vision Zero,” she said, calling the low installation rate “ghastly and unacceptable.”

Thirty-four people have died on Toronto’s streets so far this year by the Star’s count. About a third were hit in Scarborough. In September, a 17-year-old was killed at an intersection on Scarborough Golf Club Road, where Councillor Paul Ainslie had asked for a crosswalk first in 2014, and then again last July. The most recent request is still with staff.

McKelvie described jaywalking as “rampant,” in the area, where suburban roads are wider with fewer sidewalks and cars are often going faster.

“We need to accelerate installations of midblock crossings especially in Scarborough if we really want to protect pedestrians,” said McKelvie, who’s also waiting on request for a crosswalk at Military Trail across from Highland Creek Public School.

According to a recent report from city staff, “more pedestrians are killed or seriously injured” in midblock collisions “than any other collision scenario in the City of Toronto.”

City staff estimate there are about 150 requests per year for pedestrian crossings, with only four or five installed.

To get a crosswalk approved a councillor or resident can request a pedestrian crossing protection study from the transportation services division. The results of these studies are reported to community councils with a recommendation to install or not install. To meet the criteria, also known as warrants, staff must find 100 pedestrians delayed over an eight-hour period. Even for the rare crosswalks that are approved it’s almost a year before shovels are in the ground. This entire process takes an average of nine months, staff say.

Less than five per cent of crosswalks requested in Toronto over the last five years were actually installed, according to estimates from city staff, in a system one councillor calls “broken.”

Requests for full on traffic lights take a similar path, but even more study is needed.

A councillor can overrule staff’s recommendation’s on crosswalks, like Coun. Brad Bradford (Ward 19 Beaches—East York) recently did, to approve one at Cosburn Avenue and Glebemount Avenue. He moved a recommendation at Toronto and East York community council to install a crosswalk despite the warrants, which council adopted in October.

He said he “takes his queue from residents,” who know their streets best. And, like McKelvie, he thinks the city’s approach should be re-examined, calling the warrants “archaic” and the process “broken.”

“Fundamentally the warrant thresholds for pedestrian crossings or signalized intersections are quite high, I think they’re out of date and they don’t reflect a Vision Zero lens that we need to take to road design, and that’s the real issue,” he said.

City spokesperson Hakeem Muhammad said the traffic count for the Lawrence and Meadowvale intersection is expected to be done by the end of November, and that doing studies near schools can take more time as they need to be conducted during the school term.

He added the warrants were reviewed as part of Vision Zero 2.0 — the upgraded road safety plan approved by council this past summer, and staff now use a newer set of provincial guidelines that require a lower threshold for pedestrian crossing volumes.

“As a result, a higher number of locations are likely to meet the pedestrian crossover warrant,” Muhammad wrote in an email.

“However, the process and duration to request a new pedestrian crossover, study its viability and then install it remains the same.”

The crosswalk at Cosburn Avenue and Glebemount Avenue was assessed according to the old stricter criteria that required 200 pedestrians over eight hours, of which 130 were delayed more than 10 seconds. But even under the new thresholds of 100 pedestrians, it would still not have qualified as only 60 pedestrians were counted.

McKelvie said the feasibility studies should look more at access to public transit, kids and seniors crossing, and distance from schools.

“If we want to change behaviour to really encourage active transportation, than we need to make people feel safe and we can’t just rely on an outdated warrant system,” added the councillor who was an environmental geoscientist before going into politics.

“I am a scientist. I want to use evidence-based decision making in how we install our signalized crossings in the city but the system is not working,” she said

“The higher number of fatalities in Scarborough shows the system is not working.”

Teju Pathare, a mom of two who anxiously waits for her kids to get home from school across the street near Military Trail and Gladys Road every day, is another resident who’s still waiting on a crosswalk.

“I’m by the door. I want them to be independent but I also don’t want to have to worry every day that an accident will happen just outside of home,” she said.

“The traffic is quite heavy and people speed.”

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She said she doesn’t have a problem with the city’s process.

“That’s the reality of any government or anything that has to follow due process,” she said.

“They have their surveys to do and their studies, it does take time.”

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In a recent interview, Mayor John Tory said he “100 per cent agrees” that the numbers being installed are too low and had a meeting with transportation officials recently to address some of the stumbling blocks. Staff agreed to look at “shortening up” the information gathering period, and work Toronto Hydro and the TTC to streamline work once approved.

They’re also looking for more staff to expand the capacity of teams that do this kind of work, which will be part of their 2020 budget request. And they will look at ways to prioritize crosswalks areas where people are being killed or injured, Tory added.

“It’s not bad red tape, it’s necessary stuff, but we’ve got to get it done faster,” Tory said of the process.

Staff have “committed to that and I’ve committed to help them.” He’s also “willing to look at” the warrants to see if too many requests are still failing.

Things like crosswalks can help save lives, he added, but “the number one thing that still needs to change is people’s own habits.”

To that effect he launched a new campaign Friday, aimed at getting drivers to slow down and pay attention, to correspond with daylight savings and darker days, when numbers of pedestrians hit tend to spike.

“I can’t describe to you how troubled I am when these things happen,” he added.

“And they seem to happen in bunches.”

For Nancy Smith Lea, director of the Centre for Active Transportation, the crosswalk issue comes down to an outdated way of looking at things that focuses on “moving cars as fast as we can.”

“Unfortunately safety is not trumping speed,” she said.

She points to a recent recommendation from staff not to install crosswalks at every TTC stop as another example of this conflict. The recommendation was made despite the fact that, according to the report, TTC bus stops without crossings “may encourage midblock crossings.”

Staff instead recommended a “network-wide review” to identify and prioritize midblock areas prone to collisions and come up with solutions.

“We understand that these things take time and they take money but just because there is an enormous problem doesn’t mean that you don’t do anything,” Smith Lea added.

“You’ve got to start somewhere.”

Rowe, for one, is not convinced that crosswalks are the panacea to safety problems. In an ideal world she’d like to see traffic lights at the spot to “stop the flow” of cars altogether, which she thinks would be safer.

But she said a crosswalk would be a step in the right direction. And she hopes they can figure it out before someone is hit crossing the street.

“It’s almost like you have to have a fatality before they move on stuff,” she added.

“We don’t want to have that in our backyard, we would like to see a crosswalk go up much before anything like that happens.”

May Warren

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