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Canada Proposed 30 km/h speed limit in Vancouver is a good idea, but may not go far enough

A sign restricting speed to 30 km/h is seen along one of Berlin's busiest throughways, the Leipzigerstrasse, in Berlin on Oct. 8, 2018. Studies in countries across the world have proven accidents occurring at 30 km/h are generally survivable.

JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

If you drive in Vancouver, this has almost certainly happened to you: On a dark and stormy night, a pedestrian, dressed fashionably in invisible black, is suddenly silhouetted in your headlights. You hit the brakes in a cold sweat, thankful to stop in time. It’s a scenario that doesn’t always end happily. Pedestrians are hit from time to time and whether they survive is almost entirely dependent on how fast the vehicle is travelling.

In Vancouver, like most other Canadian cities, the default speed on nonarterial roadways remains 50 km/h, a speed at which the odds of a pedestrian escaping death or serious injury in a collision are grim. Councillor Pete Fry wants speed limits on residential streets lowered to 30 km/h and has a motion before city council to run a pilot project in a few neighbourhoods. He is also hoping Vancouver will ask the Union of BC Municipalities to request that the provincial government lower default speed limits on residential streets provincewide to 30 km/h.

Studies in countries across the world have proven accidents occurring at 30 km/h are generally survivable; they result in death or serious injuries in about 10 per cent of cases. The rate jumps to a frightening 50 per cent at speeds of 50 km/h. We’ve known this for years. In 2016, a Globe and Mail story on fatal crossings in Toronto worded it like this: “Research shows that being hit at 30 km/h is roughly like falling from the second storey of a building. Most people will survive. Being hit at 65 km/h is more like falling from the fifth floor.”

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And still cities have been slow to lower speed limits, convinced by arguments that doing so won’t ensure compliance.

Drivers gauge the road design and travel at speeds they deem safe, notes Murtaza Haider, associate professor at Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto. In an article he wrote for The Globe, Mr. Haider acknowledges the odds of a collision increases when drivers travel at speeds higher than the road was built to accommodate. But he says the same holds true when speed limits are set too low. Some drivers will heed the posted limits, but others won’t. “The odds of rear-end collisions will consequently increase, though pedestrian safety will not fundamentally improve.”

That seems to be borne out on a stretch of East Hastings Street, an arterial in the Downtown Eastside, where in 2011 the speed limit was dropped to 30 km/h. In the five years prior, two pedestrians died and another 39 were injured at the intersection of Main and Hastings alone.

The available statistics don’t show much improvement since then. Between 2013 and 2017, after the speed was lowered, there were still 35 pedestrians injured and two killed at the same intersection. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Without knowing the severity of the injuries and tallies for the entire six-block stretch, it’s impossible to know how much if any, the lower limits have helped. As well, East Hastings is a broad arterial where people are tempted to drive faster.

Mr. Fry is talking only about lowering speeds on narrow residential streets where people are naturally inclined to drive slower. And he is not alone. Hundreds of cities across the world, including Portland, Seattle, New York, Stockholm and Paris have dropped speed limits on residential streets below 50 km/h. Montreal is lowering its residential speed limits to 30 km/hr and Edmonton and Calgary are considering dropping below 50 km/h on non-arterials.

Sandy James, a former city planner and managing director of Walk Metro Vancouver, has for years pushed to lower speed limits. Streets should be for everyone, she says, whether they bike, roll, walk or drive. Lower speed limits encourage walking, which keeps people, particularly seniors, healthy and less isolated. But until recently, the automobile has reigned supreme and pedestrian rights have been a tough sell, she adds.

Vancouver should follow the lead of other cities and embrace the slow-driving movement. In fact, why not take Mr. Fry’s motion a step further? Let’s dispense with the pilot project and drop the speeds on all residential streets. Even better, the province could take the initiative and save everyone the trouble of pushing for something that so obviously should be done.

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