As the pandemic slows so does Toronto city hall

The big number


The number of “potentially preventable” collisions within the last three years needed to satisfy City of Toronto criteria for installing an all-way stop sign at an intersection.

At a glance, an intersection near Toronto’s eastern waterfront seems like a flat-out obvious place to install traffic lights or stop signs. A no-brainer.

It’s the crossing of two streets that see a fair amount of traffic. There’s a history of collisions there. And this is a city that has adopted a so-called “Vision Zero” plan to eliminate deaths and prevent injuries.

But the obvious ain’t always so obvious at city hall. This week, city councilors on the community council for Old Toronto and East York will debate a report that recommends against installing even stop signs at Queen Street East and Victoria Park Avenue.

One of the reasons? Not enough people have been involved in collisions there.

Unbelievably, Toronto, five years after adopting a Vision Zero plan, still has rules on the books based on provincial guidelines stating stop signs shouldn’t be installed at an intersection unless there have been nine “potentially preventable” collisions at that intersection in the last three years. (Intersections can also meet the criteria for stop signs if traffic volume exceeds certain thresholds.)

You read that right. Nine. For a Vision Zero city. Nine, you will note, is nine more than zero.

Queen and Victoria Park, which has had 13 collisions — one involving a serious injury to a cyclist — in the last three years, does not qualify, because only two of those collisions were deemed to be potentially preventable by the presence of stop signs. And so the report recommends the intersection stay as-is.

Councilors on the committee could overturn the recommendation and approve stop signs or traffic lights anyway. But that’s hardly reason to celebrate this ridiculously long and convoluted process.

It started last July when local councilor Brad Bradford requested a safety review of the area — coming after a driver totaled a Lamborghini. It took about ten months to get this report, which doesn’t even recommend any safety improvements. I repeat: ten months.

Now multiply that process again over dozens and dozens of requests for stop signs, traffic signals, speed limit reductions or other road infrastructure. You can basically multiply it again and again across all other city divisions. The process for getting park improvements, building permits, zoning approvals, and most anything else that could grow and change this city remains similarly convoluted.

Call me naive, but I thought maybe this was changing. One of the only bright spots from Toronto’s COVID-19 experience was that Toronto city hall was able to transform itself from a glacial bureaucracy to a lean, mean, getting-stuff-done machine.

Bike lanes were installed on streets without the usual thicket of studies and consultations. The CafeTO program saw parking spaces make way for restaurant patios. And on the public health front, staffed vaccination clinics were spun up in a matter of days.

I allowed myself a bit of optimism to think some of this velocity — Mayor John Tory was fond of calling it “wartime speed” — would stick around permanently. Once city hall became aware it was capable of doing things quickly, why not keep doing things quickly?

But alas, as Toronto begins to emerge from the pandemic, all signs suggest that old habits die hard. In addition to the usual bureaucratic sloth over individual stop signs or traffic lights, urgent requests from residents are again being responded to with promises to conduct studies or hold consultations instead of actually, you know, doing stuff.

Coun. Josh Matlow’s push to allow responsible drinking in parks recently met that exact fate, with Tory supporting a motion for a report on the issue for next year. The same is true for a matter as simple as turning on water fountains and opening park washrooms earlier in the spring — a request that staff seems to regard like they’ve been asked to build a fusion reactor instead of just to get some plumbing ready for use in April.

And remember all those snow-covered sidewalks and streets that lingered for weeks after the storm this winter? The mayor and a majority of council recently agreed to plan to wait until at least next January to consider a strategy for dealing with extreme snowfall. It’ll snow again before then, but, hey, what’s the rush?

It’s the kind of thing that makes people lose faith in city hall. During the pandemic, Toronto residents got a brief window where they could see their municipal government at work almost every day. Things were changing. Stuff was happening. But as the pandemic recedes, that energy, sadly, seems to be quickly disappearing too.

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