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Vancouver slashes speed limits after nine pedestrian deaths

Dignitaries that include from left to right Lorna Howes, Vancouver Coastal Health, Jennifer Newman, RainCity Housing, Dick Vollet, Streetohome Foundation, Rich Coleman, BC Housing Minister, Gregor Robertson, City Mayor, and Dane Jansen, Katherine Sanford Housing Society in Vancouver, seen here during the ground breaking ceremony for the eight and largest of the 14 city sites designated for supportive housing in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monday, June 27, 2011.

Rafal Gerszak for The Globe and Mail/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

With nine pedestrians killed already in Vancouver only halfway through the year, it wasn't surprising that people started calling for the city to take action.

And take action it did on Tuesday. One of the city's major commuter routes, Hastings Street, will have its speed limit reduced to a school-zone number of 30 kilometres an hour for six blocks through the Downtown Eastside, where three of those deaths occurred.

That move prompted applause from Downtown Eastside advocates who came out to council to ask specifically for that change, which they hope will help reduce the number and severity of the accidents near Main and Hastings.

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"The Vancouver Coastal Health trauma team has identified that intersection as having the highest rate of injuries in the city," said Medical Health Officer Patricia Daly, in an appearance at council to support the speed-reduction zone.

As well, the city, which has made it a priority to promote non-car ways of moving around the city, will spend $150,000 on an education program aimed at making both drivers and pedestrians more aware of being safe. A new advisory committee for pedestrians will be created. New signals with countdown clocks are being put in and other measures will be considered.

"We have to make sure that the city's a great city to walk in," said Mayor Gregor Robertson, as he voted for the measures.

The high number of deaths this year – double what the statistic was for the entire year last year – has attracted a lot of attention in a city that takes pride in the way it has transformed its downtown into a livable residential zone where thousands of people walk to work.

But that issue is just one that the city is moving on quickly, in what has become the traditional month for getting an extraordinary amount of city business done.

This year, however, is different, with an election fast approaching. For Vancouver council, already one of the most activist in recent memory, this July has become the month to drive through many of the big, ambitious policy documents that will set the stage for the fall election.

Besides the pedestrian safety report, July has also brought council's comprehensive plan for becoming the world's greenest city, a plan for tackling not just homelessness but also affordable housing, a plan for removing downtown viaducts that constitute a major commuter route in the city, and an analysis of the economic impact of downtown bike lanes and how to reduce it.

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Mr. Robertson acknowledges frankly that the July reports are setting the stage for Vision Vancouver's election platform.

"These do set the direction for the next term and beyond," said the mayor, in a brief break Tuesday between three sets of meetings that extended from 9:30 a.m. to near midnight.

"This is an overall framework for the action steps ahead."

But the mayor's biggest critic, the woman running against him for his job, said the problem is that too much of what's being driven through is so vague and lacking in detail as to be meaningless.

The housing and homelessness report, says Non-Partisan Association Councillor Suzanne Anton, is muddled and, at points, incomprehensible.

"It's a demonstration of how things have been rushed through," she said, eating a quick soup-and-sandwich lunch at her desk before starting the next meeting.

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The Greenest City 2020 Action Plan, she said, is meaningless. "They spent two years on that document and I don't know where it takes us. It's a whole bunch of complete unknowables."

But Mr. Robertson said the plans, which range from creating a hub to showcase local green-tech companies to charging lower permit fees for those reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, have plenty of details. It will be enough for voters to get a sense of the direction that the city wants to move in, he believes.

In spite of the political fighting, however, one initiative on which the mayor and Ms. Anton agree is the one on pedestrian safety.

Ms. Anton said she doesn't see that report as having been rushed through too quickly. She voted against the idea of the 30-kilometre-an-hour trial in the Downtown Eastside until others who use the road heavily – trucks, taxis, limousines and commuters – can be consulted about the impacts. But she supported everything else.

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