Cycling deaths in Toronto traced back to city infrastructure

Daily Brew
A ghost bike is installed at the site of last week's fatal accident in an underpass on St-Denis Street.

To say three cyclists were killed in Toronto over the course of two weeks is to simplify a senseless loss.

Sure, Roger Du Toit, 75, Zhi Yong Kang, 44, and Adam Excell, 26, belonged to the 1.5 million member strong camaraderie in Toronto known as cyclists. But first and foremost they were people – an architect, a father and an adventurer – each one plucked from daily life and reduced to a memory in the minds of friends and family.

Their deaths bring to bear Toronto’s cycling infrastructure deficit.

“I wouldn’t call them accidents I’d call them incidents – all of them were avoidable,” Yvonne Bambrick, cycling consultant and author of The Urban Cycling Survival Guide told Yahoo Canada.

In these cases, negligence seems to have prevailed, she says.

Du Toit, a founding partner of architecture firm DTAH – known for designing
cycle trails along the lakeshore and throughout the city – was struck at a T-intersection near Mount Pleasant Road during the morning rush hour on May 19. He died ten days later from his injuries.

Bambrick points out that the city had approval to convert the T-intersection from a two-way stop into an all-way stop several months prior to the collision. 

“When Roger Du Toit was hit there was still no stop sign, the week we put the ghost bike up a stop sign appeared,” she says. “Somebody should be on it and making it happen and that’s not what happened, they only acted promptly after something happened – that’s not good enough.”

In one of the other incidents, Kang was hit and killed shortly after midnight on June 11 by an impaired driver who had been stripped of her license a month earlier for drinking and driving. 

And Excell, the third, was in Yorkville in the left turning lane when he was hit on June 13. The driver fled the scene, but later turned himself in.

“If there had been turning infrastructure specific for bikes, (Excell) would have been in a different roadway position and might have been saved,” says Bambrick. “The likelihood of these deaths happening would have been reduced if better infrastructure was in place, even the visibility of the infrastructure makes drivers more aware they’re riding next to a cyclist.”

The trio of tragedies coincided with the city of Toronto’s announcement to expand the largely separated bikes lanes on Richmond and Adelaide Streets from their Yonge Street endpoint onwards to Parliament Street.

It’s part of the wider Toronto Cycling Network Plan.

“Our vote last week happened on the heels of those deaths so it inspires and motivates me to want to accelerate this process – you never want to see anyone die in that way and you think of the families that have been affected and it is just heartbreaking,” says Jaye Robinson, a city councilor and chair of the Public Works and Infrastructure Committee. “Having said that, these things take time because you have to make sure you’re doing it right and you’re consulting thoroughly with cyclists.”

The plan will mimic elements of New York City’s Vision Zero, which seeks to drastically improve the safety of streets and eliminate traffic incidents.

It’s a lofty goal, one Toronto will need to bring out it’s A-game to pull off, especially in a city where there’s an average of 1,271 cycling accidents a year, according to Toronto Police.

To do it, they’ll also need to refill the coffers.

“We’re spending $87.8 million on cycling in the next 10 years – that’s built into our capital plan, that’s committed funds,” says Robinson.

But is it enough? Bambrick doesn’t agree, pointing to the $919 million city council is looking to spend on the archaic Gardiner Expressway.

“Look at what we’re willing to do with the Gardener in terms of saving three minutes travel time – kind of backwards when other cities are moving to take their elevated highways down” she says. “We could take a fraction of that and apply it citywide to bike infrastructure and roadway improvements.”

According to Dr. Lake Sagaris, an expert on cycling-inclusive urban planning, it’s a systemic issue both at city hall and in the infrastructure itself.

“(The city’s) greatest flaw is that it has failed to demonstrate to Torontonians how cycling infrastructure is good for everyone, not only cyclists,” she says. “In any city, a higher percentage of trips by bike or tricycle contributes to cleaner air, mental and physical health, reduces congestion and noise and makes streets safer for children, seniors and those with different degrees of disability to navigate a car-dominated urban environment.”

In turn, the failure has reduced a debate that is vital for the future of any city to a cantankerous “us versus them” tussle.

“People are led to believe the central conflict is between two different interest groups – cyclists versus car drivers,” says Sagaris. 

The current network, she says, is in shambles.

“Toronto has located cycle lanes directly in the path of opening car-doors, without the required space allowance, which of course has created a major hazard and fanned a sterile debate about who is to blame when a driver or passenger throws open a door and potentially kills or seriously harms passersby,” adds Sagaris.

Case in point, between November 2013 and August 2014, police received 62 reports of dooring.

Meanwhile, intersections – where most collisions occur – have received little to no attention.

“What these symptoms indicate is that for governance or technical reasons, basic design standards are being ignored, placing all road users at risk,” she says. “I emphasize ‘governance’ reasons, since often the responsibility for bad solutions or design ‘errors’ are limitations imposed on technical planners, rather than their lack of familiarity with international standards, which are well established at this point.”

Sooner or later, says Sagaris, Torontonians need to decide how much they’re willing sacrifice in the name of keeping cars on the streets and having spaces to park.

“This requires a much more strategic, long-term and deep participation, rather than the somewhat superficial and often frustrating consultations that people are currently offered,” she says adding that Toronto is one of the few major global cities with scarce pedestrian amenities like quality car-free public space on a permanent basis or car-free Sundays.

“We are too passive and accepting of the dangers inherent in allowing cars to speed at over 30 km an hour through busy city areas, or along rural roads for that matter,” says Sagaris. “On the three fatal collisions killing cyclists – these are not accidents and whole countries particularly Sweden, The Netherlands and Denmark have demonstrated that appropriate measures can seriously reduce road hazards and deaths.”

As it stands, adds Bamrick, Toronto is operating at the bare minimum with it’s cycle network.

“(It’s) important progress, things like the Richmond and Adelaide separated cycle tracks, the improvements to Wellesley and Harbord, the East-West on Adelaide and Richmond and the fact we’re extending the pilot project,” she says. “We are making small steps but when we look at the speed with which cities like New York have made those changes, we are going at a snail’s pace.”