Three Legged Stool

Toronto’s Vision Zero Road Safety Plan is an action plan to reduce fatalities and injuries on city streets. To meet its goals, three types of support are needed: education and community, enforcement, and design. If any of these supports is weak or missing, a major change will not be successful.

Education programs help raise awareness of a need for change in an organization or a community. It’s vital for people who will be affected by the change to understand not only that change is needed, but why it is important and how the change will affect them. Information communicated clearly, transparently, without an explicit or implied moral judgment, informs and has the potential to inspire shifts in attitudes and behaviours.

Rod Napier’s 20-60-20 rule applies in both organizations and broader communities. A small portion of the population will see the potential for improvement and respond positively. A similarly small portion will dig their heels in against the change. The bulk of the population will remain largely indifferent, unlikely to commit in favour of or against a new initiative without incentive to do so. The “positives” and the “negatives” may influence this group in either direction, making education important but insufficient on its own.

The next leg of our stool is enforcement. Positive reinforcement, such as a reward system for compliance with expectations, works well in many scenarios including the workplace: meet or exceed your goals, get a raise or bonus or promotion. Negative reinforcement can also work, provided the consequences of unacceptable behaviour are understood and consequences are consistently applied. When a long term goal is not generally agreed on (present awareness and buy-in for Vision Zero from the public at large), the frequency and consistency of reinforcement are key to changing the thought patterns and attitudes that drive behaviour.

Promoting desired behaviour and extinguishing unwanted behaviour, whether it’s speeding or cell phone use, requires building and breaking habits. Anyone who has tried to quit smoking, joined a fitness club, or started a weight management program is aware of how hard it is to build good habits and cease bad ones. Blitzes can help with specific targets and consistent reinforcement. Speed traps tend to have limited effects beyond the immediate, in part because exceeding the posted speed limit while driving is normalized behaviour.

The ongoing focus of policing against the use of hand held cell phones by drivers is an excellent example of work that is extinguishing unwanted behaviour. Police are consistently looking for incidents and laying charges, and courts are enforcing the law in all circumstances. This is great for one aspect of behaviour that has a direct impact on Vision Zero results. Unfortunately, not all road users and not all dangerous behaviours can be addressed in this manner.

What’s needed is the third support: design. Our existing roads, traffic controls, sidewalks, and infrastructure for cycling and mixed uses don’t always promote safe behaviour. Broad, straight roadways encourage users to travel at the higher speeds for which they were (possibly incidentally) designed. On road bike lanes marked with a stripe of paint are easy to ignore. Narrow sidewalks, crowded corners, and wide intersections encourage pedestrians to step into the road when it may be dangerous to do so. Roundabouts designed to move cars through quickly are treacherous for non-motorized use.

We use cognitive shortcuts constantly. It’s not laziness or moral failure: we simply don’t have the resources to devote to making decisions at a high level of detail on an ongoing basis. If the infrastructure we’re using makes it easy to act in a certain way, many of us will take that action regardless of our intent. Often we can make low cost changes to help people reach the outcomes we want. The King St Transit Pilot is an excellent example of significant improvements Toronto accomplished without having to change much of the physical road bed and signage. Curb extensions can work well to regulate traffic at intersections.

By combining education, enforcement, and infrastructure changes, we can reach, if not zero injuries and fatalities, major improvements in the safety of our streets for all. The Netherlands were not always bicycle and pedestrian friendly. We can make changes in Toronto and throughout Canada to improve travel, whether for work, recreation, or general use, for all.

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