Metro Talks: Transportation director Barbara Gray on the future of our roadways
Toronto’s director of transportation visited Metro to discuss her goals for the city’s streets and explain why the future doesn’t belong to the car.
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After 17 years in the Seattle, first as an urban planning student, and then as the city’s deputy director of transportation, Barbara Gray is ready for something bigger.
“My family and I were ready to live in the big city,” she says. “There’s something about living in a big city that’s really comforting to me.”
Gray, Toronto’s newly-minted director of transportation, will undoubtedly be one of the city’s most-watched bureaucrats of 2017. Under her watch, the city will roll out its new road safety plan, tackle congestion and “rebalance” the roads so pedestrians and cyclists can get around safely and easily.
Gray’s tenure in Seattle taught her that changes to road design can have “overnight impacts on people’s daily lives.” Now that she’s here, she’s looking to take the lessons she learned in the Pacific Northwest and “scale” them to Toronto.
“All solutions are ultimately local,” she says.
Gray stopped by Metro to talk about improving the way Torontonians move – whether they’re behind the wheel or the handlebars, or simply on their own two feet.
Gray sees transportation planning as a “dialogue” and is vocal about her desire to involve more people in the process.
She plans to reach out to Toronto Public Health “because they measure everything and have good data.”
She’s also eager to tap into the “energy” of the private sector and hopes to strengthen her department’s relationship with the police, especially when it comes to enforcing speed limits.
“I hope I can demonstrate the success of partnerships,” she said. “You start to blur those lines between disciplines and it provides opportunity.”
Gray grew up outside New York and first visited Toronto in the mid-90s.
“The city left a huge impression on me,” she said, hailing Toronto as a “walkable” city with a “dynamic and complicated” transportation system and “glorious” architecture.
Gray called Toronto “a city of neighbourhoods” and although she’s yet to travel to all of the city’s many corners, she’s already been impressed by how multicultural we are.
“I was eager to be in a diverse city,” she said.
Safety is ‘job number one’
In her previous job, Gray led an aggressive push for pedestrian safety, and said she’s pleased to see similarities between Seattle’s plan and Toronto’s new $80-million road strategy.
“The focus on seniors and kids is exactly right. They’re the most vulnerable road users,” she said. “We know that older people get hit and suffer more severe injuries and we know that children have no real alternative to move around on their own other than walking or cycling.”
Gray is tasked with rolling out the plan, and said its success will be measured in the number of lives saved.
“You need to see the needle moving,” she said. “A year is not a long time, but we should see some progress being made.”
Urban planning vs. engineering
Many senior transportation planners are engineers, trained to think about traffic in terms of numbers. Gray is different; she has a background in urban planning.
So, when she walks down the street, she focuses less on traffic signal timing and more on how the road functions as part of the public realm.
“One of the things I’ve learned is that if you can find a team of planners who think like engineers, and engineers who think like planners, you can accomplish quite a lot,” she said.
War on the car?
Gray rejected the suggestion that designing better roads for pedestrians and cyclists constitutes a “war on the car.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “If you’re interested in having people have a reliable trip regardless of what mode they choose, and growing the number of people in the city, you can’t continue to expect that everybody is going to travel in their car.”
Gray encountered the same rhetoric in Seattle, but said it faded away after residents found safety improvements and cycling infrastructure didn’t add to congestion, but did reduce the number of injuries and deaths on the road.
“Not everyone is convinced by data, but if you can demonstrate that the changes you’ve made have had some impact, you start to see the pace of change increase,” she said.
“Get ‘er done”
Gray acknowledged that transportation planning in Toronto will be different than in many U.S. cities, where planners have more delegated authority, and municipal politicians can change the rules of the road without having to ask the state government for permission.
“It seems like there’s a lot of process to get things done. Not in a bad way, it’s just the way it is here,” she said.
To help Toronto’s roads accelerate into the 21st century, Gray called for more pilot projects in the city – such as the Bloor bike lanes, or the proposed dedicated streetcar lane on King Street – which would let residents see the positive effects of change before committing to it.
Transportation “rock stars”
Gray said she takes her cues from two “rock star” U.S. transportation planners.
The first, Janette Sadik-Khan, is the former commissioner of New York’s Department of Transportation. She famously converted a number of popular roads in the city – including Times Square – into pedestrian-only plazas.
“Janette really showed what you can do quickly and inexpensively when engineering and planning needs meet,” Gray said.
The second is Grace Crunican, Gray’s former boss in Seattle and the current head of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART) in San Francisco. Gray said Crunican taught her about the importance of partnering across disciplines.
“Janette and Grace came about in at about the same time with a similar mission: to create safer cities around transportation and to be innovative and creative and not be content with what had happened over the last 50 years,” Gray said.