Cities across Canada are slowing down cars. Forty is the new 50. It is a win for people.

In the Victoria suburbs, eleven small municipalities are planning a pilot program to reduce the speed limit on residential roads to 40 kilometres an hour from 50. In Vancouver, the 30 km/h limit for schools and playgrounds is being extended around the clock, rather than only during certain hours. The city is also testing a 30 km/h “slow zone” neighbourhoood in East Vancouver.

Toronto is also moving to rein in drivers. Last year, it cut speeds on stretches of arterial roads to 50 km/h from 60. And this month, 50 speed cameras went live around the city near schools or other designated “safety zones.” These cameras were first installed late last year, but until now only dispatched warnings to offending drivers. The 50 cameras may only be a first step – there are about 800 schools in Toronto – but research shows automated enforcement causes drives to slow down.

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All these efforts are welcome, though there is much more to do.

The idea of lower speed limits will at first seem onerous to many drivers; an undue intrusion on the freedom of the road. We have all been conditioned to prioritize cars and speed. Our cities have been built for cars, to move them as quickly as possible from A to B, the faster the better. So it is no surprise that 40 km/h sounds slow and 30 feels snail-like. A speed limit of 50 has forever been considered normal on residential streets, with higher speeds on larger roads.

But speed kills.

The chances of a person surviving being hit by a car going 50 km/h is less than one in five. At 70 km/h, it is almost guaranteed that the pedestrian will be killed. But at 30 km/h, nine in 10 pedestrians survive.

People are dying because urban planning has long overvalued cars and undervalued pedestrians. National data for 2018, released last week by Transport Canada, shows yet another year when drivers and their vehicles killed more than 300 people on foot.

In Toronto, drivers killed 38 pedestrians last year – many of them older people. It was a typical year. The deaths were the result of drivers hitting more than 1,400 pedestrians. Since 2005, at least 110 pedestrians a year, and as many as 215, suffered serious injuries.

These numbers are all too high. There are solutions all Canadian cities can institute to reduce the fatalities. Cities such as Toronto and others are taking some of the right steps – starting with lower speed limits and enforcement.

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The policy changes are taking place under the banner of “Vision Zero.” The idea, originating in Scandinavia in the late 1990s, is that no pedestrian should ever be killed by a car.

Two decades later, the results are remarkable.

Zero pedestrians died in Helsinki and Oslo last year. The policy measures that achieved that feat are varied, but all centre around battling the primacy of the car. Lowering speed limits is key. Other changes include safer street design, road tolls, more expensive parking, and replacing much of the street parking with wider sidewalks and bike lanes. Investment in transit has spurred ridership. While Toronto has put up speed cameras around 6 per cent of the city’s schools, Oslo is testing “heart zones” where driving around schools is banned.

“Car traffic will always be part of the city,” said Oslo’s mayor, “but the drivers should act as guests.”

The steps taken so far in Canada are important but they are still early steps. The cameras in Toronto, for instance, are focused around schools. The safety of children garners unanimous backing. But such zones, because of their relatively low speed limits, are not where most people are getting killed. Bringing in automated enforcement is great, but it needs to be deployed where pedestrians are at far greater risk, on big streets with currently higher speed limits.

The move toward automated enforcement, however, is key. Some critics believe drivers simply will not slow down, even if limits are lowered. But the threat of a costly speeding ticket surely is ample inspiration for many drivers to ease up on the gas pedal, making the city a safer and better place for everyone, at the most minor of inconveniences with fractional increases in travel time.

Compared with Scandinavia, Canadian cities are taking only baby steps. But they are, finally, on the right road.

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