As anniversary of Toronto van attacks looms, how is the city keeping public spaces safe?

How can cities better protect pedestrians from vehicle ramming attacks?

Since a deadly rampage on Yonge Street in April last year, Toronto has been forced to wrestle with the unsettling question.

The answer, at least according to one urban infrastructure expert, doesn’t require new technology or Draconian security measures. Look to Vision Zero, says Nicole Gelinas, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute think-tank in New York City.

Vision Zero aims to achieve a road and cycling network with no fatalities or serious injuries from traffic-related incidents. It is a set of practices that has been adopted in various iterations by cities all over the world, including Toronto.

Many of the planning and design ideas that global cities employ as part of their Vision Zero plans “can be fit” into preventing acts of vehicular terror, says Gelinas.

The narrowing of streets to naturally slow the speed of traffic, constructing bigger networks of protected bike lanes and prioritizing the creation of “pedestrian plazas” — areas with lots of foot traffic where private vehicles are largely prohibited — can all contribute to curbing opportunities for drivers with malicious intent, he says.

In Toronto, even the suggestion of some of these techniques has garnered controversy. Civic battles over bike lanes and lower speed limits are common. Former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, for example, liked to say that such infrastructure and planning decisions were part of “the war on cars.”

Since Toronto’s Vision Zero plan began in earnest in 2017, it has done little to curb pedestrian and cyclist deaths. Current Mayor John Tory acknowledged as much last month, when he said that the “carnage” on city streets prompted him to initiate the so-called “Vision Zero 2.0” strategy. The plan includes reducing speed limits on some arterial roads, an initiative that Tory had previously opposed.

Forty-one pedestrians died on Toronto’s streets in 2018, a figure that does not include the 10 people killed when a van mounted the curb and drove toward them on the sidewalk on April 23. Alek Minassian, 26, faces 10 counts of first-degree murder in connection to their deaths, and 16 counts of attempted murder for the 16 people who were left injured.

1st anniversary approaching

Toronto will mark the first anniversary of the attack with a ceremony at Mel Lastman Square in North York on Tuesday afternoon.

The incident prompted police to install concrete barriers, sometimes called jersey barriers, around Union Station — one of the highest-traffic areas in Toronto.

“The city is finalizing the design of permanent vehicle barriers around Union Station. Installation should begin this year,” a city spokesperson said in an email statement.

Similarly, in the weeks after the attack, police used strategically placed dump trucks to protect large crowds coming and going from Scotiabank Arena to watch playoff hockey. More recently, police have utilized road closures and restrictions to protect pedestrians during busy days downtown, such as when multiple professional sports teams play on the same day.

Other busy areas have seen increased security as well.

Even before the Yonge Street attack, temporary “vehicle mitigation measures” were put in place around Toronto City Hall and Nathan Phillips Square. According to the statement from the city, staff are currently working on “the long-term plan” for those two locations.

Unique responses in different cities

The erection of those barriers was prompted by a sharp increase in the number of vehicle ramming attacks worldwide in recent years. In 2016, a 19-tonne cargo truck was used to killed 86 people in Nice, France. Six months later, a truck was used to take the lives of 12 people at Berlin’s famed Christmas market.

Attacks in places such as London, Stockholm, Barcelona, New York City and Edmonton followed in 2017.

Gelinas points out that various cities have responded differently. For example, New York City installed bollards — narrow steel beams dug several feet below street level — around Times Square and Rockefeller Centre. Bollards require substantial capital investment, but they don’t impede pedestrians the way that barriers or large dump trucks do.

“Cement barriers don’t really protect against attacks that well,” Gelinas says, because they usually only encircle a relatively small area anyway.

“And they also don’t look very good. So it’s a good thing that cities are starting to put these longer-term, less obtrusive barriers in place.”

Ultimately, limiting car and truck access to busy pedestrian thoroughfares is the most effective way to prevent vehicular attacks, she says.

That’s policy that could require significant political capital in Toronto. Earlier this year, city council rejected a plan that would have seen a major transformation of the busy stretch of Yonge Street where the van attack was staged.

“REimagining Yonge,” as the plan was called, would have seen a reduced number of traffic lanes and wider pedestrian areas separated from the road by bollard-like installations. The plan, in the works for years, was endorsed by city staff multiple times.

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