It isn’t an attack on the car to say that residential speed limits in parts of Canada are too low. It’s an admission that neighbourly reciprocity has not survived into the 21st century. Big-city residents in particular do not take the attitude that “I will go slowly and carefully through your neighbourhood, because I hope and expect you will go slowly and carefully through mine.”
We support the car, we drive the car, but do we have to pledge allegiance to the car? On some divided highways, there’s an argument for increasing speeds to 110 km an hour from 100. But cars make life in neighbourhoods less livable – even drivers can admit that. Children take their lives in their hands by playing ball in their front yard. Strolling home from school becomes hazardous. Speed breaks the calm, and neighbourhoods should be calm. That feeling led London to set a speed limit of 20 miles an hour (a little more than 30 kmh) in 400 neighbourhood zones since 2001. Research published in the British Medical Journal found a 46 per cent drop in deaths and major injuries in the zones.
It’s a sensible idea, particularly on streets with an elementary school or park on it. Why should people drive 40 km an hour (which to many drivers is a license to drive 50), or 50 (which means 60) when children are playing or crossing?
And where do speed limits come from, anyway? “Traditionally, speed limits have been set by traffic engineers using samples of actual speeds and calculating the 85th percentile speed,” says the Transportation Association of Canada. Drivers are the last group who should be setting their own limits -- as drivers would be the first to admit.
Some Canadian cities have begun trying out lower residential speed limits. In Edmonton this summer, neighbourhoods were given the right to lower speed limits to 40 from 50. Winnipeg,is studying whether the 50 km speed limit should be reduced to 40 in residential areas. In Vancouver, the speed limit has been cut to 30 on a downtown stretch after three pedestrians were killed. In Montreal, boroughs have been lowering speed limits to 40 from 50 since 2009.
Any reductions in speed limits need to be backed by police enforcement. Life won’t be any worse for drivers, but it will be much better for neighbourhoods and children.